Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

1 Oct, 2013

Recovering alcoholics welcome in Brunei, says Sultanate’s top tour operator

BANGKOK – Millions of recovering alcoholics around the world are being invited to take their next holiday or hold their next big event in one of the world’s few publicly ‘dry’ destinations – Brunei Darussalam.

Michael Lee, Managing Director of Freme Tours & Travel, based in the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan, says the time has come to proudly market the country’s restrictions on public consumption, marketing and sale of alcohol as an asset to the only niche-market customer segment that could avail of it.

Mr Michael Lee

“Why not?” he asks. “We are the only country in ASEAN to have such restrictions. It is part of Bruneian culture. Why should we not be proud of it, especially when there is such a large captive market of people who would welcome a ‘dry’ holiday.”

According to the global fellowship group Alcoholics Anonymous, of the 2.13 million worldwide members, 1.42 million are in USA and Canada alone. In reality, the global numbers are probably 10 times higher. That is a huge market just waiting to be tapped.

With a tiny population of less than half a million, Brunei is an oil-rich Sultanate located on the northern tip of Borneo, one of the world’s most heavily rainforested islands. It has tried to promote tourism over the last two decades as part of efforts to reduce its dependence on oil. It is also trying to promote other economic sectors such as halal products and Islamic finance.

Tourism promotion efforts have yielded mixed results, because of a lingering perception that an alcohol component is a necessary part of the visitor experience. Mr Lee said that did pose a problem in the past, but it is time to get over it.

“I remember when Royal Brunei Airlines start flying to Frankfurt many years ago, I went to the German tour operators and told them to include Brunei in their packages. They said it would be impossible due to the alcohol curbs.

“Today, it is a different story. Health & wellness tourism has become a global phenomena. We know there are many people suffering from serious problems related to alcohol consumption. The one place they can enjoy a very good holiday without seeing a single advertisement for an alcohol product or being tempted by alcohol in their hotel mini-bar, it is Brunei,” Mr Lee said.

He said Alcoholic Anonymous members can organise their private meetings in Brunei and then spend a few days enjoying the beaches, rainforest treks or a day on the golf-course.

He said people can drink in private, and non-Muslim visitors are allowed to bring in two litres of alcohol or 12 cans of beer for their own personal consumption.

Mr Lee described Brunei as a safe, friendly country where visitors never have to worry about becoming a victim of a drunk-driver on the roads. There are no roadside bars and families never have to worry about unruly behaviour.

“I proposed this idea (of promoting alcohol-free tourism) for many years. Everyone was very supportive but no-one actually did anything. Now, I think the time has come to change that. It fits in perfectly with a global trend, consumer demand and the local culture. It is also good for ASEAN tourism because we are the only country that can offer such a unique product. It is a truly win-win situation.”

Mr Lee said the alcohol-free experience can begin from the time visitors step on board Royal Brunei Airlines, the national carrier, which also does not serve alcohol. He suggested the Empire Hotel & Country Club as the best place to stay, as it has its own golf course.

He said visas are not required by citizens of most European countries, Australia, the United States, Canada and Japan. Those countries that do require visas can usually get them fairly quickly at the nearest Bruneian mission.

He said anyone interested can check out his website www.freme.com and get in touch with him personally at michael@freme.com.

Mr Lee was interviewed for this article in Bangkok where he was taking part in the IT&CMA – CTW Doublebill event organised by TTG Asia Media between 1-4 October 2013.