Culture. Heritage. Nature. Contemporary Asia. A distinctive, exciting, and undiscovered travel destination in Asia.
It sounds like a whimsical haven, and it is part of the marketing materials being issued by Brunei’s Tourism arm in a reinvigorated push to draw tourists to the tiny, oil-rich monarchy. Problem is, the glossy allure comes at the same time the country is being cast under an ugly international spotlight for implementing the harshest array of Sharia Law regulations.
“The four pillars of Brunei’s tourism products, these elements offer a unique blend of modern refinement, scenic culture, cultural reverence and majestic opulence for the discerning traveler,” the “Imagine Brunei” campaign continues. “With recent increases in manpower and expertise, including the hiring of international tourism consultants, and a clear strategy with ambitious but feasible goals, Brunei Tourism is working to market its undiscovered tourism potential in the competitive regional tourism market.”
Last month, the state-owned Royal Brunei Airlines announced that it would also be stepping up its the marketing push in the bid to entice tourists, according to travel site Skift.
But now that very airline has come under fire. On Wednesday, in the face of much international outcry and condemnation, Brunei’s ruler the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah went ahead and imposed the final phase of its barbaric Islamic penal code.
“There is much speculation that tourism will suffer. Already an Australian lobby group is pressing the government to revoke Royal Brunei Airlines’ landing rights in Australia, calling on Melbourne Airport to halt the acceptance of flights from Royal Brunei and for travel agents to stop selling the airline’s flights,” Benjamin Ryberg, director of research at The Lawfare Project, told Fox News.
Homosexuality has long been deemed illegal in Brunei and comes with a punishment of up to a decade behind bars, but the new, stricter legislation makes being gay, or convicted of adultery, a capital offense punishable by stoning. Moreover, those found guilty of stealing could also see their limbs chopped off.
Despite already having the death penalty on its books, the last time anyone was sent to the gallows was in 1957, human rights group The Brunei Project documented.
Analysts and inside sources told Fox News that the Sultan, now 72, wants to shore up his reputation as a devout Muslim leader and wants to ensure the 400,000-person nation doesn’t dip in delinquency in years to come.
While the new laws may have many potential Western tourists or investors running in the opposite direction, other reports suggest that the opening tourist and development market may very well find its feet – from China. Chinese companies are investing huge sums in the kingdom, according to the South China Morning Post.
China’s President Xi Jinping is said to have visited Brunei in November last year – marking the first time a Chinese leader had done so in over 13 years.
The government has continued to double-down on its decision despite the uproar, and in a statement said that sharia law “aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals.”
Neighboring and far poorer South East Asian nations such as Cambodia and Laos draw millions of visitors annually, as wealthy Brunei reportedly draws less than 300,000.
And despite resources being devoted to changing that, the new laws may only dash such dreams further.
Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Hotel – owned by the Sultan – continues to come under the Hollywood wrath. A protest movement first ignited five years ago, in which scores of celebrities boycotted the gabled pink-and-white hotel, eventually withered only to reignited by George Clooney last week ahead of the law’s implementation. That is also said to rattle the tourism industry, given the prestige the Dorchester hotels have in the high-end category.
"Although the leaders of the current boycott are coming with the best of intentions, they will only hurt the local hotel employees," said Tim Hentschel, CEO of group booking site HotelPlanner.com. "If revenues drop, labor will be the first thing the hotel cuts, that means employees get hurt by the boycott, not the owner's."
Whether or not the protest will stick this time, remains to be seen. According to a source connected to the hotel, which falls under the Dorchester Collection of nine luxury hotels owned by Brunei’s investment wing, they have not yet been notified of any permit applications submitted to police for protesting.
Furthermore, a source connected to the Sultan says he is seemingly unperturbed by the hoopla.
“He has money, all his people are on free healthcare, free education, and the list goes on,” added the insider. “Do you think he cares about the mess here?”