BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The second edition of the Brunei December Festival (BDF) kicked off to much fanfare on Sunday, part of a tourism drive to attract more visitors to the sultanate, and to get locals to spend and stay domestically during the year-end holiday period.

The inaugural BDF in 2017 attracted 98,000 domestic and foreign visitors, numbers Brunei’s tourism board hopes to surpass this year, with the addition of more than 60 events to the festival roster.

Brunei’s tourism sector has seen encouraging growth over the past two years, with air arrivals increasing by 18.3 percent in 2017, totaling 258,955 — the highest number in seven years.

This is large part due to the rapid growth of the outbound market from China, which now represents the sultanate’s biggest source of tourists.

“With the Brunei December Festival back for the second time this year… we are confident of ending the year strong and exceeding last year’s arrivals,” MPRT Permanent Secretary Wardi Hj Mohd Ali told local media at the BDF launch at Taman SOAS.

Officials from the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism indicated that Brunei will surpass its target of 278,000 air arrivals this year, representing visitor growth of at least 14 percent from 2017.

In addition to arrivals at Brunei International Airport, border control also registered more than four million entries into the country by land and sea.

Improved connectivity has been key to tourism growth, with Royal Brunei Airlines (RB) expanding its network in East Asia, opening up routes to Seoul, Taipei and six Chinese destinations, with services to Changsa, Tokyo and Beijing to begin in 2019. Low-cost carrier Lucky Air has also opened up flights from Nanning and Kunming to Bandar Seri Begawan.

The Brunei December Festival — which was launched by His Majesty the Sultan at Taman SOAS — features a host of events ranging from food festivals and cultural experiences, to film workshops as well as sporting and adventure excursions.

“Normally December is a quiet month with locals preferring to spend their holidays abroad. Hopefully with the upcoming events, it will encourage more Bruneians to stay and spend their money domestically.” MPRT Minister Dato Seri Setia Hj Ali Hj Apong said recently.

Cyclists at the launch of the Brunei December Festival 2018 at Taman SOAS on Dec 2. Photo: Infofoto

Bruneians spent more than $1.2 billion in Malaysia last year, lured by better shopping, entertainment and a favourable exchange rate.

However, the sultanate is eager to shake off its image as a sleepy destination, but still faces challenges in terms of a limited marketing budget and lack of tourism infrastructure.

The tourism board has appointed the national airline, RB, as the lead marketing agency to promote the sultanate abroad, collaborating with M&C Saatchi of Singapore. 

“Our new network with a very strong footprint in key tourism markets will help us in delivering the 500,000 visitors to our shores by 2021 and with it very significant economic benefit to Brunei and the tourism industry stakeholders,” RB CEO Karam Chand told The Scoop in a recent interview.

With the tourism sector expected to generate $140 million in 2018, reaching half a million visitors in the next three years could add close to $300 million to the local economy.