BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN  – Brunei’s sleepy tourism industry has finally woken up, stirring Bruneians’ confidence in seeking opportunities in hospitality and food and beverage sectors.

Recent efforts to diversify the country’s economy by establishing it as a tourist destination has caused a shift in how locals view the hospitality sector, with official data indicating that more visitors are coming into the sultanate for holiday and leisure.

Brunei recorded an 18 percent increase in tourist arrivals in 2017, with 258,955 visitors arriving through Brunei International Airport. In addition to air arrivals, there was a total of 4,057,029 entries into the country via land and sea.

A welcome change for hoteliers

“The raised profile of tourism has allowed Bruneians to believe that there is stability and career prospects within the industry,” Abd Rani Siteh, the former president of the Brunei Association of Hotels, said.

“This is a welcome development because as hoteliers we need locals to represent our front lines,” he added, noting that there is high demand for locals, not only in food establishments but also tourist accommodations.

However, Abd Rani, who previously managed Capital Residence Suites, observed that locals prefer to work at bigger establishments such as The Empire Hotel and Country Club.

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He said that smaller hotels are usually overlooked, adding that they too are in need of more local workers to cope with rising demand.

Abd Rani Siteh, former president of the Brunei Association of Hotels. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop.

According to data from the Department of Economic Planning and Development, the hospitality sector employed 10,095 people in 2014, 5.3 per cent of the country’s total labour force. Bruneians represent 51.7 percent of the hospitality workforce, while foreign labour comprised the rest.

Abd Rani added that while most hotel workers are local, as an industry with a high turnover rate, there is always a need for more.

“In Brunei, there is not much in terms of entertainment. However, the country does have a very rich and thriving food culture… With new food establishments popping up constantly, and the youths’ inclination towards these sorts of lifestyle activities, there is actual reason for Bruneians to want to enter the hospitality industry.”

Youths quick to catch on to industry demand

The Institute of Brunei Technical Education (IBTE) has seen an uptick in the number of students registering for hospitality courses, reflecting current demand in the job market.

According to IBTE, the employability rate for its hospitality graduates stood at 81.4 percent in 2017.

However, Mohd Kamarul Izzudin Hj Kamaluddin, head of the IBTE School of Hospitality and Tourism, said the school can only accommodate up to 180 students per intake, even though it receives more than 500 applications every year.

The demand has prompted the school to add a second intake to meet the need for skilled hospitality professionals.

Head of IBTE School of Hospitality and Tourism, Mohd Kamarul Izzudin Hj Kamaluddin. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Mohd Kamarul added that the number of locals in the hospitality industry may have risen significantly, due to exposure through social media and a positive change in the community’s perception of such jobs.

“Places and food dominate people’s [social media] feeds, and this increased exposure has caused the hospitality industry, as a whole, to grow.”

“You can see how different the food industry, in particular, has become… [Bruneians] have learned to appreciate the design of food, and that’s a great mindset, because it leads to individuals thinking that it’s not embarrassing to work in a restaurant or a café.”

Most of the school’s hospitality graduates eventually go on to start their own online food business or restaurants, but the curriculum also arms students with skills in hotel operations, guest service, travel guiding as well as culinary arts.

“This is why we tell our students that whenever they enter the industry, they should inform their employer that they have a diverse set of skills inclusive of the culinary as well as hotel and restaurant operations,” Mohd Kamarul said.

Rural communities thriving off hospitality sector

As a business-owner who offers both accommodation and food services, Eyon Ukoi, founder of Eco Ponies Garden, believes the changes within the industry began when Brunei’s tourism department was upgraded to a ministry in 2015.

“For players in the industry, it made us feel stable to have that support from the government, and it gave us an idea of where the industry is headed,” she said.

Not long after the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism was established, Eyon noticed more emphasis given towards the hospitality sector. “It [allowed us to explore] our food culture and how our country is a peaceful place to stay.”

Villagers in Lamunin, Tutong help prepare traditional ‘kampung’ food for visitors to Eco Ponies Garden, a community-based tourism project. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

For Eco Ponies — a farm-stay located in Lamunin that provides visitors with the experience of rural living — most of their staff are volunteers from the local community.

Eyon said the blossoming of the tourism industry has positively impacted rural communities, with many finding value in the hospitality industry as a medium to share their culture with tourists.

“They see that food in particular evokes a strong reaction. So [they feel satisfaction] seeing people from different cultures and background react positively to their food.”

Since opening in 2015, Eco Ponies has received more than 4,000 visitors from 35 countries. And its success has a trickle down effect — as the farm-stay grows, so does demand for produce supplied by rural farmers in Lamunin.

“The community may not even realise the value in the services they provide to our visitors, like preparing traditional food, or bringing them jungle trekking to forage for ingredients.”

She added: “With all the domestic and international visitors that have stepped foot in the garden, some locals have told me that they want to enter the hospitality industry, with one now studying at IBTE.”

Brighter future for young jobseekers

For Mohd Ifwat Dini Al-Hakeem, who is taking a HNTec in hospitality operations at IBTE, he is hopeful about his future.

His course prepares him with skills that can be applied across the hotel industry — from the kitchen, restaurant and front office to housekeeping — but the 21-year-old is keen on pursuing a career in the culinary arts.

Hospitality student Mohd Ifwat Dini Al-Hakeem performs a cooking demo at the IBTE School of Hospitality and Tourism. Photo: Wardi Wasil/The Scoop

Fresh off the 12th ASEAN Skills Competition (ASC) in Bangkok — a contest which rewards excellence in vocational education —  Ifwat believes that Brunei’s hospitality industry is now very competitive, and only the most creative and market-savvy will survive.

He said with a good foundation, the skills learned during his training will enable him to find employment not just in Brunei, but outside the country as well.

The aspiring chef will be graduating this month, and with two medals from the ASC under his belt, he dreams of opening his own restaurant or a business that helps train other aspiring chefs.

“I’m planning to continue my cooking studies [outside of the country] and I hope to one day contribute my own original culinary creations to the scene. I love international dishes and what I want to do is to create international dishes that have a Bruneian twist to it.”