The COVID-19 pandemic hit every aspect of life and the tourism industry and Brunei Darussalam is no exception.
One casualty of COVID-19 is the cessation of operation by Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel Sdn Bhd/Bintang Ulu Ulu Resort starting today.
Bintang Ulu Ulu Resort is tucked away in the pristine rainforest and attracted visitors from overseas and within the country. Earlier this year, Ulu Ulu Resort was one of the recipients for the 7th ASEAN Green Hotel Award at the ASEAN Tourism Awards ceremony.
Despite the government’s efforts in providing free rental from April, the resort could not sustain its costly operation due to zero income in the past few months.
Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel Sdn Bhd Bintang Ulu Ulu Resort Managing Director Anthony Chieng Hock Kiet broke the news on Facebook and Ulu Ulu Resort website.
“As of June 30, Sunshine Borneo Tour & Travel Sdn Bhd/Bintang Ulu Ulu Resort will no longer operate and manage the facilities at Ulu Temburong National Park under the brand Ulu Ulu Resort,” the statement said.
“We thank the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT), especially the Forestry Department, for their support and partnership in the last 12 years.
“We would also like to thank the Brunei Tourism Department and our partners in the tourism industry as well as suppliers for making Ulu Ulu a success. Due to COVID-19, we are unable to sustain this business even with the Ministry of Finance and Economy’s (MoFE) support of free rental from April to September 2020.
“I would like to thank the Ulu Ulu team for their hard work and commitment as well as the volunteers and researchers who opened an amazing world to the visitors. Ulu Temburong National Park is an amazing place and I wish it success in the future.”
In an interview with the Bulletin, Anthony Chieng explained the reason for ceasing operations. “In December 2007, Sunshine Borneo Tours & Travel Sdn Bhd signed the first public-private partnership with the Forestry Department for a period of 10 years.
“The contract ended on December 31, 2018. Sunshine Borneo Tours & Trave; was given another two years until December 31, 2020 but due to COVID-19, there were no tourists. We could not afford to carry on as being in a remote destination, the cost of maintenance and operation was costly and difficult to manage.”
The Forestry Department with approval from MoFE and support from MPRT, he said, “agreed for free rental from April to September 2020. This lightened the burden for our company, but we still could not carry on due to our remote location.
“Local tourism counts for three per cent of our business as our yearly statistics show 97 per cent are tourists from overseas.
“With no tourist flights coming into Brunei Darussalam and the borders closed, our company decided to close permanently as we are the only remote destination resort in the Sultanate with an extensive range of facilities. News from ASEAN and worldwide have revealed many tourism related businesses are closing down as there is no business for the foreseeable future.”
With operations halted, 15 full-time staff were let go.
“We had 15 full-time staff members. COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic and every one of my staff understood the situation. As we gradually reduced the team, they knew the company could not continue without income,” he said.
Before COVID-19, he explained that Ulu Ulu Resort’s business was improving.
“We have nature enthusiasts, bird watchers and photographers who have been promoting the resort along with Royal Brunei Airlines (RB), our tour consolidator for many years.
“There was also the emerging China market that provided business for RB. Hotels, restaurants and Ulu Temburong National Park (UNTP) day trip and overnight stays were part of the China market package. This helped business.”
Anthony Chieng said, “We were already bringing tourists to UNTP. When we signed the public-private partnership, we were keen to create a brand as UNTP has the easiest accessible pristine rainforest in the region.
He paid tribute to the volunteers at the Ulu Ulu Resort.
“There is a long list of volunteers who made a difference through their passion and effort.
They were happy to be in such a pristine environment.”
On promoting Ulu Ulu Resort, Anthony Chieng said, “It was always a privilege to attend ASEAN trade shows or those in the United Kingdom or the United States. We were honoured to be given the opportunity.
“I am sure there are local companies with great new ideas and passion who can take over and create an even stronger brand.
“Of course I feel sad, but I learnt to let go and allow others the opportunity as well.”
On the impact of COVID-19 on the local tourism industry, Anthony Chieng said, “As with the tourism industry worldwide, we are in the same boat.
“There is not much we can do except to wait. Brunei Darussalam is in a great position as we are safe and we can travel around. There are local tourism opportunities to look into. We can look to diversify and see what resources we have.”