"Remoteness” and “isolation” are tags that destination marketers used to avoid studiously when extolling the virtues of their products. But in today’s stress-filled environment, what were once perceived as negative attributes are now regarded as unique, even desirable.
Brunei, the tiny, oil-rich sultanate along the northern shores of Borneo, has always been able to offer something a little different from the bright lights of the big city with its cosy, small-town feel and vibrant Malay traditions – assets it is unabashedly capitalising on to attract battle-weary executives who long for a chance to renew and recharge.
It is fortunate also to possess a singular treasure, the 50,000ha Ulu Temburong National Park, which is emerging as a world-class retreat thanks to enhanced infrastructure and determined efforts by Brunei’s tourism stakeholders.
In the thick of the activity is Anthony Chieng, managing director of Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel and a veteran ground handler of 16 years’ standing. “After studying in the UK, I returned and entered the industry, and it was only then I visited the Water Village and the (Royal Regalia) museum,” he says. “I have seen many countries since, and the more countries I fly to, the more I realise the good things Brunei has.”
Chieng has put his money where his mouth is, steering his company towards investments in a river cruise product and a sea sports centre – “to be able to control quality and service delivery and fulfil promises to customers”, he says. Lately, a new project that has been taking up much of his time is enhancing the kingdom’s profile with a gem of a retreat destination: Ulu Ulu Resort.
Set in the heart of Ulu Temburong National Park – but only about two hours from the capital Bandar Seri Begawan via a combination of sea, road and river transport – the lodge has been a work-in-progress since Chieng’s team leased it from the government two and a half years ago, transforming what was a structure with only basic amenities to a more comfortable venue that can host not just leisure adventurers but meeting groups as well. It remains the only operating hospitality venue in the rainforest, which is an excellent example of virgin, primary vegetation.
Great pains have been taken to keep Ulu Ulu Resort in sync with the environment and as distant as possible from reminders of the urban lifestyle – meaning no internet access or mobile phone reception. Says Chieng: “This is what we are selling. We tell our prospective visitors that they will have a great time connecting with each other and not a gadget.
“Letting go of technology is a big step for a lot of people. At first, these executives frown and look uncomfortable when they find out that we are serious about not providing technology, but by the time they leave they are thanking the staff for the opportunity to do without something that has taken over their lives.”
At the 2011 Asean Tourism Forum in Phnom Penh in January, Ulu Ulu Resort made its formal debut, boasting a set of facilities that had been added to the original building. These included a multi-purpose hall, kitchen, walkway and helipad. The gardens have been spruced up, too.
The resort has also begun distributing its signature giveaway, reflecting its commitment to the war against waste – an aluminium water bottle that features the Ulu Ulu Resort logo. Bottles of mineral water will no longer be provided, but guests can refill their gift flasks any time with safe, filtered drinking water.
With the room inventory still at 24 units, and no growth plans, at least in the foreseeable future, groups can always expect an intimate experience. Each room, however, can also be set up for occupants to double or triple bunk.
With the jungle at the doorstep, outward-bound activities are natural highlights of itineraries packaged by Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel at Ulu Ulu Resort. Ascending the steel tower and navigating the Canopy Walk for spectacular views of nature 43m above the forest floor are must-dos, as are various treks, including one to the waterfalls. But Chieng is also keen on launching more introspective teambuilding programmes.
“The new form of training is that of the mind and heart, as the management of the future is becoming a much more emotional concept, focused on helping employees discover themselves and their core values in order to find direction,” he says. The plan is to provide activities such as meditation and yoga, and even spa therapies, to complement the meetings and workshops. Professionals able to offer these services are plentiful in Brunei, but haven’t often been called upon, partly because of a perception among some companies that by engaging in such non-traditional exercises, they might not be getting their money’s worth.
Nitaya Pirinyuang, sales manager, travel industry/MICE of The Empire Hotel & Country Club, Brunei’s most prominent events space, agrees that it continues to be a struggle to convince corporations to include a wellness component. The usual culprits are time and budget constraints, she says.
Jean Christophe Robles Espinosa, director of marketing and promotion for Brunei Tourism, believes the kingdom ought to be able to cater very well to the health and wellness market. “It would be a logical development, following on from Brunei’s wholesome image,” he says, but adds that its small population has meant that awareness of the wellness market’s potential continues to be in its infancy.
“It’s still tough to get people to make the investment. We don’t have a Banyan Tree or Mandara Spa, and the resorts that we have are locally owned and located in the city. Ideally, we would like to develop special treatments built around the jungle.”
At The Empire, the event team perseveres pushing the wellness factor. Pirinyuang says that the hotel offers mini back and shoulder massages during coffee breaks, while spa sessions have become part of its Spouse Programme. “The range of facilities at The Empire is so wide and varied, including the Marine Centre at our West Beach facing the South China Sea, which can cater for cocktails or a barbecue or informal meetings or even a yoga class. If wifi internet access is needed, we can easily set it up there.”
With Ulu Ulu Resort polishing its profile and The Empire poised to introduce a new room concept (see box), talks are in progress about a partnership between the two. In the future, groups could begin their experience at the national park, conducting their goal-determining workshops and bonding there, and end up at The Empire for the fun and relaxation bit. Pirinyuang sums it up, saying: “Sunrise at Temburong, followed by sunset at The Empire – after the hard work they move on to the reward.”
Like Ulu Ulu Resort, The Empire trades on a sense of exclusivity. “Our hotel is so large that companies can have peace of mind they won’t be sharing the area with another,” says Pirinyuang. “They can have breathing space, unlike in Bali and Phuket, and not be bothered by pedlars.”
Brunei definitely has challenges to confront in promoting itself to meetings and incentive groups, and raising its tourism image to a new level. But it’s an amazing repository of natural resources, and it should be only be a matter of time before a harried world learns to appreciate the tranquility and verdant landscapes that characterise the country.
As Robles Epinosa of Brunei Tourism says: “No other nation in Southeast Asia looks or feels like Brunei.”
Flag carrier Royal Brunei Airlines, which flies to more than 20 major cities in Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Europe via London and Frankfurt, adds Melbourne to its network from March 29. Last August, Cebu Pacific Air started flying to the kingdom, and increased its Manila-Bandar Seri Begawan service from twice to three times a week in December. The roster of airlines regularly serving Brunei also includes Dragonair, Singapore Airlines (codesharing with SilkAir), Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways and AirAsia.
The temperature is generally warm and humid all year round, ranging between 24ºC and 34ºC. Light clothing is highly recommended, and when touring places of worship or attending a social function or business meeting, visitors are advised to don suitably modest attire.
Malay is the mother tongue of most Bruneians, the majority of whom also speak English – some with a British accent, thanks to an education in the UK.
Citizens of most countries can enter Brunei without a visa for stays of 14 to 30 days. US nationals can come in visa-free for as long as three months. The most up-to-date entry regulations can be found on the foreign ministry’s website
Hotel pick-up, speedboat for a scenic ride through mangrove-lined waterways. Arrive in Kampung Batang Duri; boarding a temuai (longboat) and proceed upriver to reach Ulu Ulu Resort at Ulu Temburong National Park.
Upon arrival, staff will conduct a briefing and emphasise the importance of connecting with each other. Stainless steel water bottles will be provided to minimise the use of plastic.
Proceed by longboat up Temburong River to Sg Apan, for a trek to a waterfall and for swimming.
Lunch at the Two-River Terrace, followed by a meeting or teambuilding at request.
Afternoon tea at the club lounge.
Dinner served at Valley Café, followed by jungle night walk.
Wake-up call and coffee/tea at Valley Café. Canopy walk; climb to the top of the canopy tower to enjoy the sunrise. Return to the lodge for breakfast, followed by a meeting or teambuilding programme.
Lunch at Two-River Terrace followed by water activities. Check out and board longboat for Kampung Batang Duri; return from there to Bangar; then board speedboat for return journey to hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan.
THE EMPIRE HOTEL & COUNTRY CLUB
SUNSHINE BORNEO TOURS & TRAVEL
l if you want to experience a city free from traffic congestion and tall buildings that block the sky.
l if you want to plunge deep into the heart of a pristine rainforest and return to the city in time for dinner. Ulu Temburong National Park presents scenery straight out of Avatar.
l if you want to see a ruling monarchy in action. Visit at Hari Raya – the end of the traditional fasting period of Ramadan (the date varies each year) – and join the well-wishers who troop for three days, three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, to Istana Nurul Iman, the palace used for state functions, to greet Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and his family. You will see for yourself how revered and well liked this hands-on royal is.
l if you can’t last a day without a bar crawl. The sultanate bans the sale of alcohol but allows non-Muslim tourists to bring in 12 cans of beer and two bottles of stronger alcohol per entry.
l if you’re a disco fanatic, as you’ll have to shelve those dancing shoes – it’s a leisure option that just isn’t available. Options that are available include a handful of malls (the most recent is located in Gadang) and some good Japanese and Italian restaurants. The range of reasonably priced DVDs in local shops is amazing.
l if you operate on full speed and expect others to do the same. Brunei’s lifestyle remains laid-back and people here still take the time to enquire about each other’s personal lives.