It may still be the most remote Southeast Asian destination, but Brunei is seeing a slow, steady growth in cruising.
The destination’s overall tourist development has come to a halt in recent years, particularly after hitting a big peak in 2003 of 944,000 tourist arrivals.
After that and until 2012, the country welcomed an average of 250,000 visitors annually.
A drastic drop followed this spike, with only 179,000 arrivals in 2014. Despite the decline in tourist arrivals, the number of cruise visitors has steadily increased as the number of ship visits rises.
According to Brunei Tourism, in 2009 the country welcomed about 19,400 cruise passengers. This was an increase from 17,450 the previous year.
In 2014, Brunei had its busiest summer season, welcoming 15 ocean ships. This attracted a record of 30,000 cruise visitors.
Lines that called on Bandar Seri Begawan (Muara) during the five-month period from December to April included Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises, Silversea, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Hapag-Lloyd, Celebrity Cruises, Cunard, Oceania Cruises, Azamara Cruises and Seabourn.
What’s coming to Brunei’s cruise sector in the next 12 months?
Although Brunei’s tourism leaders aren’t focused on building new port infrastructure or attracting cruise ships to secondary ports for the moment, the country can expect another record cruise season over 2015/16.
Thirteen cruise ships will visit Bandar Seri Begawan throughout the season, making a total of 21 calls.
Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas will kick off the season a week early when she makes her inaugural call at Bandar Seri Begawan on August 24. The ship will arrive during a 10-night Brunei, Philippines and Taiwan cruise from Singapore.
She will be followed by Oceania Cruises’ Insignia, which will visit during her 70-day New World Quest from Hong Kong to Miami.
Sapphire Princess will return several times during her second season sailing from Singapore. Expect to see the ship frequent Brunei’s popular port in December, January and February.
She will be one of two Princess ships visiting this season; Pacific Princess will also stop by in February 2016 during her 94-day World Cruise segment from Los Angeles to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Other ships also making an appearance this coming season include Silver Shadow, ms Volendam, ms Europa, Costa Victoria, Nautica, Seven Seas Voyager, Astor and Queen Victoria.
Seabourn Sojourn will join Insignia to close the season in April 2016.
Things to see and do in Bandar Seri Begawan
Brunei gives cruise visitors a warm welcome when they arrive in port; the country’s tourism leaders provide traditional welcome receptions when ships visit.
Once on shore, guests can take a tour of Bandar Seri Begawan to see the Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, which is located within walking distance of the Royal Regalia Museum. It is not the largest mosque in the country, but it is a spectacular site, with its mix of Mughal architecture and Italian styles. The mosque was completed in 1958 and is named after Omar Ali Saifuddien III, the 30th Sultan of Brunei.
Inside the Royal Regalia Museum, cruisers will find ceremonial dresses and artifacts that belong to the country’s former royals. Or they can mix with locals and pick up some fresh produce at the Kg Kianggeh Open Air Market.
Sale of all alcohol is banned in Brunei, including at hotels. However, non-Muslim visitors over 17 years of age are allowed to bring in alcohol for personal consumption. Brunei has generous duty-free allowances, permitting two litres of alcohol (spirits or wine) and 12 cans of beer to be imported up to twice a day. Travellers by air are advised to make their purchases prior to departure, as duty-free alcohol is not available at the airport in Brunei. Upon arrival at Brunei, you must declare any alcohol by simply filling in the yellow import forms available at the airport after you exit immigration and before customs checks. You should be able to show the merchandise too. If you arrive by car, simply request these forms from the customs officers, fill them in and hand them back to the officers for acknowledgement. You’ll be given an official stamp/signature.
Top places to stay in Bandar Seri Begawan
In total, Brunei only has about 2500 rooms spread among 30 establishments, ranging from guesthouses to the super-luxurious hotels.
Among the top places to stay in Bandar Seri Begawan include the Rizqun International Hotel, which may only have three-and-a-half stars but is close to shops, restaurants and supermarkets.
For a more luxurious stay, there is the four-and-a-half star Capital Residence Suites or Radisson Hotel Brunei Darussalam.
One of the most attractive properties is the seven-star Empire Hotel & Country Club. The hotel isn’t located in Bandar Seri Begawan, but rather closer to the South China Sea in Kampong Jerudong. It is Brunei’s most prestigious beach resort and features a 12-storey marble and gold lobby. The property has its own 180-hectare manicured gardens and 18-hole golf course.
Currency: Brunei dollar
Season: October to April
Cruise type: Ocean
Major port: Bandar Seri Begawan