Belait struggles to lure tourists

National 3 minutes, 58 seconds

BELAIT

LOCATED 100 kilometres from Brunei International Airport and just 45km from Miri's thriving commercial centre, the Belait district is struggling for international visitors outside the oil and gas industry.

Encompassing almost 50 per cent of the sultanate's land mass, Belait is best known as the source of the nation's wealth, but its most populous mukims - Seria and Kuala Belait - rarely escape descriptions as sleepy coastal towns.

Tourists are not short of accommodation options, with 12 hotels positioned across the town centres of Kuala Belait and Seria.

Connectivity, whether to the capital or neighbouring Sarawak, is not a limitation in the district, save for those seeking out remote Sukang and Melilas, located at the district's southernmost points.

It is not known how many of the 218,213 tourists to Brunei last year made a stop in Belait, but several of the district’s hotel managers cite that above 80 per cent of all guests are visiting for business related to the oil and gas industry.

Some of these hotels even provide chauffeur services to and from Miri, which many long-term guests often opt for on the weekend.

Belait's retail sector is evidently developing, but continues to face stiff competition from its Malaysian neighbour.

Still, 2015 was a year of many firsts for the sector, as the district welcomed its first one-stop mall, Sentral Shopping Centre, but the vast majority of its vendors can already be found in the capital.

In Seria, the Billionth Barrel Monument and the Oil and Gas Discovery Centre regularly rake in visitors, but those visiting as part of tour packages typically only make a day trip to the district from the capital.

Instead, its inner, rural Belait has put forward some of the answers needed to remedy Belait's flagging tourism.

The Mendaram Besar Longhouse in Labi, located about an hour's drive from the Sg Liang traffic intersection, has emerged as the district's most visited homestay, recording all-time three-month high of 440 visitors this year.

Officially opened to tourists in 2001 as part of the Visit Brunei initiative, which coincided with the nation's hosting of the Seventh ASEAN Summit, the longhouse has gradually been refining the administering of its visit and homestay programme.

According to the head of the economic and women bureaus of the longhouse, adult and children visitors pay $3 and $1 respectively for a day entry into the longhouse, with each service or demonstration rendered charged separately.

“Since we are quite far away, visitors will usually partake in a number of activities (which allow us to earn); from eating the food we prepare, engaging in handicraft making and learning from cultural dances and stories,” said Hensona Munah.

Signing up for a night's stay will cost as low as $28 per person for groups of 25 and above, and as high as $55 for those in groups between five to nine.

Guests sleep on the communal living corridor shared by the 11 residing families, but an officer from the Belait district office who deals with the economic activities of village and mukim consultative councils said this arrangement has to be improved for the longhouse to realise its full potential.

“Although many guests may not mind (sharing the communal corridor), for the homestay to really improve, the option of separate rooms is needed,” said Yamin Ahmad Hj Abd Razak.

Another challenge facing the longhouse is the lack of phone signal, preventing direct enquiries and bookings to the longhouse.

The route to Mendaram Besar, via the Sg Liang traffic intersection into Jalan Labi, and the road shortly after it, is especially strategic – five of the 11 places to visit listed on Brunei tourism's website for Belait are located along this 45-kilometre stretch of road.

Before Mendaram, visitors can opt to trek at Sg Liang Forest Recreational Park, relax at wooden huts overseeing alluvial freshwater swamp at Luagan Lalak Recreational Park and stop by Sg Mau's tamu (market).

However the most common site for those visiting the longhouse is a nearby waterfall, known as Wasai Wong Kadir.

Back on Belait's coastline, the village consultative council of Lumut is planning to partner up with a private firm to develop a lagoon in the area to be an eco-tourism destination.

Village head of Lumut I and Belait district representative to the Legislative Council Yang Berhormat Hj Mohd Shafiee Ahmad said the ambitious project would see the construction of wooden chalets for accommodation, food stalls and offer horse riding.

Key issues including the gazetting of the land under the proposed site, which is under the Heart of Borneo initiative, are being ironed out.

“The project would share some similarities to the successful Mangrove Paradise resort. But this lagoon itself is beautiful, unique and would be a definite draw for tourists if developed in a way that is in line with eco-tourism,” said YB Hj Mohd Shafiee.

The Brunei Times