Brunei’s tourism arm is trying to draw tourists to the tiny, oil-rich monarchy. Picture: AP/Vincent Thian
Brunei’s tourism arm is trying to draw tourists to the tiny, oil-rich monarchy. Picture: AP/Vincent Thian

Brunei’s bold response to backlash

Culture. Heritage. Nature. Contemporary Asia. A distinctive, exciting, and undiscovered travel destination in Asia.

It sounds like a whimsical haven, and it is part of the marketing materials being issued by Brunei's tourism arm in a reinvigorated push to draw tourists to the tiny, oil-rich monarchy, Fox News reports.

Problem is, the glossy allure comes at the same time the country is being cast under an ugly international spotlight for implementing the harshest array of Sharia Law regulations.

New Islamic criminal laws took effect Wednesday in Brunei that punish gay sex and adultery by stoning offenders to death.

It is in stark contrast to the Imagine Brunei campaign that talks about the "four pillars of Brunei's tourism" that "offer a unique blend of modern refinement, scenic culture, cultural reverence and majestic opulence for the discerning traveller".

"With recent increases in manpower and expertise, including the hiring of international tourism consultants, and a clear strategy with ambitious but feasible goals, Brunei Tourism is working to market its undiscovered tourism potential in the competitive regional tourism market," the campaign states.

STONING FOR GAY SEX, ADULTERY

Brunei, an absolute monarchy ruled for 51 years by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, implemented the new penal code on Wednesday.

Homosexuality is already illegal in the sultanate, but it will now become a capital offence. The law applies only to Muslims, and means gay sex and adultery will be punishable by stoning to death, despite fierce global condemnation.

Brunei first announced the measures in 2013, but implementation has been delayed, in the face of opposition by rights groups, and as officials worked out the practical details.

Last month, the state-owned Royal Brunei Airlines announced that it would also be stepping up its marketing push in the bid to entice tourists, according to travel site Skift.

But now that very airline has come under fire. On Wednesday, in the face of much international outcry and condemnation, Brunei's ruler the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah went ahead and imposed the final phase of its barbaric Islamic penal code.

Those found guilty of stealing could also see their limbs chopped off, and if a woman has an abortion, she could face 15 years in prison. Similarly, pregnancy out of wedlock is punishable by up to two years in prison.

"There is much speculation that tourism will suffer. Already an Australian lobby group is pressing the government to revoke Royal Brunei Airlines' landing rights in Australia, calling on Melbourne Airport to halt the acceptance of flights from Royal Brunei and for travel agents to stop selling the airline's flights," Benjamin Ryberg, director of research at The Lawfare Project, told Fox News.

According to The Australian, Virgin Australia has axed its staff travel deal with Brunei's national carrier. In an email sent to staff, "the myID (staff) agreement between Virgin Australia and Royal Brunei has now been terminated effective immediately".

According to a spokeswoman who spoke to the newspaper, the staff travel agreement was for the sole purpose of employee leisure travel benefits.

"Virgin Australia does not sell seats on Royal Brunei," the spokeswoman said.

"Under a separate interline ticketing agreement, Royal Brunei sells seats available on Virgin Australia aircraft for select routes within Australia. There is no change to this particular agreement."

VACATIONS ON THE EDGE

Despite already having the death penalty on its books, the last time anyone was sent to the gallows was in 1957, human rights group The Brunei Project documented.

Analysts and inside sources told Fox News that the Sultan, now 72, wants to shore up his reputation as a devout Muslim leader and wants to ensure the 400,000-person nation doesn't dip in delinquency in years to come.

While the new laws may have many potential Western tourists or investors running in the opposite direction, other reports suggest that the opening tourist and development market may very well find its feet - from China. Chinese companies are investing huge sums in the kingdom, according to the South China Morning Post.

China's President Xi Jinping is said to have visited Brunei in November last year - marking the first time a Chinese leader had done so in over 13 years.

The government has continued to double-down on its decision despite the uproar, and in a statement said that sharia law "aims to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals."

Neighbouring and far poorer South East Asian nations such as Cambodia and Laos draw millions of visitors annually, as wealthy Brunei reportedly draws less than 300,000.

And despite resources being devoted to changing that, the new laws may only dash such dreams further.

Meanwhile, the Beverly Hills Hotel - owned by the Sultan - continues to come under the Hollywood wrath. A protest movement first ignited five years ago, in which scores of celebrities boycotted the gabled pink-and-white hotel, eventually withered only to reignited by George Clooney last week ahead of the law's implementation.

On Wednesday, TV personality Ellen DeGeneres called for a Brunei hotel boycott, urging social media users to not stay at accommodation locations around the world owned by the Sultan of Brunei.

Whether or not it will stick this time, remains to be seen. According to a source connected to the hotel, which falls under the Dorchester Collection of nine luxury hotels owned by Brunei's investment wing, they have not yet been notified of any permit applications submitted to police for protesting.

Furthermore, a source connected to the Sultan says he is seemingly unperturbed by the hoopla.

"He has money, all his people are on free healthcare, free education, and the list goes on," added the insider. "Do you think he cares about the mess here?"

LIVING IN FEAR

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Brunei's LGBT community has expressed fear at the prospect of living under the Islamic law.

Khairul, a young gay man who spoke to CNN over the phone on Tuesday, said the new laws were "inhumane."

"It's a very aggressive punishment. It's not something that a human should suffer … just because of being a homosexual," he added.

Prior to the introduction of the new code, homosexuality was outlawed and carried a punishment of up to 10 years in prison.

Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organisation headquartered in New York City, described the new penal code as "barbaric to the core" and urged the sultan to "immediately suspend amputations, stoning, and all other rights-abusing provisions and punishments."

Zain, a transgender woman who also spoke with CNN, said she had been living in fear for over five years since the Sultan first announced the laws would be coming in to place.

"Everyone is affected. It's just going to be a horrible life living there, even if you're not LGBT," said Zain, who is now, according to CNN, seeking asylum in Canada. "Women especially would be at a big disadvantage there."

- with Fox News