BANGKOK, 9 April 2019: Hosting the Asian Tourism Forum early next year in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei’s capital could be in jeopardy as there is “already talk of a possible boycott by some sellers”, Skål International Asia vice president Southeast Asia, Andrew Wood, warned on Monday.
Asked for a comment on the #bruneiboycott campaign, Wood said the decision was in the hands of Brunei, but if matters remained unchanged it was likely that some hospitality and travel content providers would not attend the 2020 travel trade event.
“As to a solution I have to say that lies with Brunei. Without a damage control platform it could hurt all travel providers with interests in tourism in Brunei.”
Brunei will host the ASEAN Tourism Forum 12 to 16 January 2020 based on a strict alphabetical rotation that sees all of ASEAN nations host the event in a 10-year cycle.
However, a country can opt out of hosting the event skipping their turn for economic or political reasons.
An oil-rich nation, with only a marginal interest in tourism, it skipped hosting the show in the 1990s accepting the assignment for the first time in 2001 and again in 2010.
Brunei attracts around 250,000 visitors a year about half of its population so tourism is not a priority industry, although with oil and gas due to run out in a decade the nation looks to tourism as a down-the-road economic driver.
There is a precedent for crashing out and at this moment it could be a plausible step for Brunei to take without losing face.
Myanmar’s junta opted to do just that in mid-2005 about six months before the event was due to open in Yangon in January 2006. The country’s military rulers had declined the ASEAN chair due to political pressure, and the ATF was the immediate casualty.
The Philippines took over the task of hosting the ATF in Davao City with less than six months to spare. The city’s mayor, none other than, Rodrigo Duterte, led the hosting committee.
TTG Media’s event management role for the travel mart and media programme carried over to the Philippines to avoid any disruption.
If the Bruneiboycott campaign gains more traction the unspoken fears are that leading tour operators in Australia, North America and Europe will decline hosted invitations to the travel mart.
They could face considerable criticism from the media in their home countries and the #Bruneiboycott campaign.
There are different concerns in Asia. ASEAN-based travel companies that rent more than 500 booths and muster around 1,000 delegates at the three-day travel event may feel uncomfortable considering the duty of care obligations. If they assign LGBT staff to attend the show, will they be at risk and if something goes amiss who will be liable for staff safety and well being?
Transgender entertainers from Phuket and Pattaya will definitely give the event a miss for fear of facing heavy fines and a prison term. Cross-dressing is an offence under the new law.
Gay couples attending the ATF are accustomed to sharing a hotel room. They will be obliged to occupy separate rooms and so will life partners who have not legalised their marriage.
No statements have been issued by any travel associations based in Asia on the harsh penalties written into Brunei’s penal code. They are sitting on the fence.
Emphasising he was expressing a personal view rather than an official one from Skal Asia, Wood said: “The very thought of stoning is utterly barbaric, add to that what has been passed into law last week is for crimes associated with one’s sexual orientation. No-one chooses their own orientation, everyone is born with it, some different from others.”
Brunei last week finally adopted Syariah law completing a process that started in 2013 prompting a wave of protests over the penalties that critics say are out of context in a modern society.
Same-sex offences have been punishable in the past with jail sentences, but under Syariah law introduced 3 April the court can prescribe the death penalty by stoning regardless of gender.
“In an age of diversity and gender equality to be condemned to be stoned to death for being LGBT is unfathomable,” Wood commented.
He describes the diversity of the travel industry highlighting the broad range of personalities, gay or straight that make up an “eclectic mix” in the industry.
“We need to stamp out human rights violations and abuse both verbal and physical, at every opportunity. Be it racial hatred or barbaric punishment such as amputations and stoning to death – for the vast majority, it is unacceptable.
“Boycotting and withdrawing support is one way of showing in a civilised way, that we find this abhorrent. To do nothing would in my mind condone such actions.”
But he concedes that for some organisations it’s a too hot to handle topic.
“I believe that what started as a hotel boycott has spread to the airlines and to travel agents and organisers of MICE events. I don’t think it will stop there.”
Brunei would be wise to reconsider its commitment to hosting the ATF 2020 knowing that the pushback in the long run could rebut efforts to position the country as an “Abode of Peace”.
SKÅL ASIA is made up of 2,560 members in 44 Clubs, 29 grouped in five national committees and 15 affiliated, the Skål Asian Area is the most diverse Area in the world of Skål, reaching from Guam in the Pacific Ocean more than 10,000 km to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean with clubs in 19 fascinating countries in between.
The boycott should extend to all AccorInvest properties too. The Saudi Wealth Fund being the majority shareholder.
I could not see Brunei unilaterally withdrawing from holding the event, as then it would have to admit something was wrong.
Whether it has been done before or not, I do believe the ATF should itself move the event elsewhere, given the significant contributions to the industry made by affected groups. Have some guts and take a stand.
Will ATF guarantee the safety of all attendees?
I don’t really think in the current environment that Brunei is the best destination for any conference. I am a firm believer in someone having a belief system but when their belief system impacts others like the one the Brunei Government has now implemented all MICE & INCENTIVE business should be re-considered until there is a policy change.
We have already warned our clients who are from a diverse background to re-consider flying Royal Brunei and traveling to Brunei due to safety concerns.
How does a same sex couple holding hands on a flight know they won’t be arrested upon arrival into Brunei even if they were only going to be in transit.
I do think the Brunei Government needs to clarify it’s policy on non-nationals on Brunei.
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