BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Tourist arrivals to Brunei plummeted 94 percent last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the acting director of tourism development said on Tuesday.
Brunei has remained closed to non-essential travellers since March 2020, recording just 3,543 air arrivals in 2021, compared to 62,325 in 2020 and 333,244 in 2019.
Plans to reopen borders in January 2022 were scrapped due to fears over the highly-transmissible Omicron variant, which precipitated a third wave of COVID infections that infected 1 in every 4 Bruneians.
Speaking at a BIBD-hosted forum on the travel and hospitality industry, Tourism Director Salinah Salleh said between April 2020 and June 2021 travel agents lost $28 million in tour revenue, while hotels lost $5.9 million in bookings.
Tourism receipts for 2021 totalled just $1.3 million, compared to $20.8 million in 2020 and $113.1 million in 2019, government data showed.
Due to the severe contraction in the tourism sector, hotel staff have been forced to take pay cuts of 35 to 50 percent, while some have resigned altogether, said Mohd Iswandi Maaruf, president of the Brunei Association of Hotels.
“No hotels have been closed down, and while hotels haven’t retrenched staff, some employees have resigned due to hotel restaurant closures,” he said.
Recovery in the hospitality sector was badly hampered by a Delta-fueled wave of infections from August to November 2021, spurring the government to reinstate a number of financial relief measures to help businesses in the private sector.
When restrictions were lifted in late November, the government kicked off a second domestic tourism campaign to help cushion the impact of the pandemic, following a similar strategy in 2020.
Salinah said domestic tourism has benefitted from a rise in local consumer spending due to international travel restrictions, recording $3.56 million in sales for 2020 and $2.2 million in 2021.
Seventy percent of tourism operators attending the virtual forum said they have not been able to make enough money from domestic tourism. Fifty-one percent said they have had pivot their career or business outside the travel industry.
Hotels have also pivoted their strategy from tourist bookings to providing quarantine accommodation for inbound travellers to Brunei.
Asked if the hotel isolation packages have helped boost hotel receipts, Mohd Iswandy was ambivalent.
“I’m not saying that business is great, but [hotel] occupancy is great. The revenue is just [enough] to survive because some hotels are still paying off loans and staff. What we need is a large volume of people coming in”.
Fifty-seven percent of the survey participants said their tourism business would not be able to survive if borders remain closed for another year.
In its 2022 economic outlook for Brunei, the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies said recovery in the tourism sector remains hesitant so long as impediments to international travel remain.
The think tank suggested that as well as promoting domestic tourism, government should work with regional partners to establish travel corridors with harmonised standards around recognition of vaccination certificates and digital contact tracing.
This story was updated on March 24, 2022 to include the results of a survey conducted among participants of the tourism and hospitality forum.