I must admit I had more than a few misconceptions about Brunei Darussalam before my recent trip to this year's ASEAN Tourism Forum held in Davao City, Philippines. I am not alone. While it is frequently connected with the Middle-East, it is not the Middle-East. Brunei is much closer to Malaysia. After all, it is surrounded by Malaysia on the northern coast of Borneo. I caught up with the head of Brunei Tourism and CEO, Sheikh Jamaluddin bin Sheikh Mohammed during the intermission of the Hinugyaw Cultural Dance Troupe performance "“ they were amazing! Although, I was initially intimidated by the Sheikh's powerful name, however I found a pleasant and relaxed man "“ another misconception.

What makes Brunei unique?
People always have this perception that we are somewhere in the Middle East. I think this is because we are rich in oil and gas and because there is a Sultan of Brunei. Actually, we are in Borneo, on one of the safest islands in the world. What makes Brunei unique, in comparison to other destinations is that we have the world’s largest water village [Kampung Ayer] in Brunei. This is an original village from 600 years ago. People live along the river, they have schools, clinics and you can still see this today. There about 30,000 people living in this water village. It is also located next to the world’s largest residential palace, the home of the Sultan of Brunei. You should come by and you can see it. Another important fact is that although Brunei is small, we do not cut down our trees. Almost every area of our land is pristine and untouched. We can do this because all of our oil and gas is drilled offshore. We are very fortunate not to damage our rain forest and judging by the growth of eco-tourism, it puts Brunei in a good position. Our biodiversity, the flora and fauna, remain untouched as it was originally. It is something that we all can benefit from.

It is tourism that we started about 10 years ago. Because our tourism started at a later stage, we could see what other countries did. We pay a lot of respect to our environment. We make sure that our community benefits from tourism. We make sure that we do not have the bad effects of tourism. One thing I learned is that tourism is like a double-edged sword. Or like fire, as an example. You can cook with fire, but you can also have your house burned down. So we’re very mindful of the negative aspects of tourism. We are going steady, not spending too much money on marketing, and we are progressing nicely

What should Westerners know about the culture of Brunei?
We get a lot of American tourists. Americans come when the cruise ships come around in the region. One thing that they find most astounding about Brunei, as opposed to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, you don’t get stuck in traffic. It’s not polluted and they’re not so many people around, something you would expect from a country that’s very crowded, but we’re not. It’s a very clean country. When you drive through Brunei, the road is all manicured and landscaped with flowers. It is a very high quality infrastructure. There is no poverty in Brunei. Not as anyone would know it. You have no people begging in the street. So we’re providing an opportunity for visitors, someplace new, clean and untouched. People want to go somewhere new. There are lots of wonderful places like Hawaii and Kuala Lumpur, but how many times can you want to do that. Brunei is one of these unusual and unknown destinations

Do regulations make it difficult to visit Brunei?
Interestingly, Americans have the longest visa free visits available from Brunei. It is 90 days. So that’s good news! Also, if you go to our web site, www.Brunei.travel, you can see we have a fantastic resort, called the Empire Hotel. It is a multimillion dollar resorts built by our royalty and you’ll see that no expense to detail has been has spared. President Clinton has stayed there. He loved it and he played golf there. We have a golf course designed by none other than Jack Nicholas. It’s a lot of fun. We do get lots of Korean tourists. They come for five days and they play [golf] the whole five days.

Will you be hosting and ATF Convention in three years?
Yeah, I think 2010. I hope you’ll be there too.

What would you suggest a visitor do in Brunei?
Eco-tourism is really the way to go, especially if you love nature. I recommend that traveler’s go to our national park in Ulu Temburong. It’s a 45 minute journey by boat [from the capital city of Bandar Seri Besar]. And once you’re in this park, it’s like being in the land of the dinosaurs. It’s exactly how it has always been, untouched. We have a canopy walkway, but you’ll see no development beyond the treetops. It's wonderful view of nature: no sign of buildings and no sign of civilization. And you’ll see how small you feel when you see these tall trees. It’s a wonderful way to see things. It is even better than the Discovery Channel or reading National Geographic. Come see it for yourself. It is incredible. I love it when I go there.

Interviewed and written by Devin Galaudet

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For more information check out www.bruneitourism.travel

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