TO former Kiwi pilot, David Bennet, 48, budget tourism is big in Sarawak — a hidden gold mine, as he describes it.
“Not many people realise it has great potential — only that at the moment, it’s disorganised, ignored and neglected,” he said.
Last year, he noted, budget tourists formed some 65 per cent of visitors to New Zealand where tourism has become the second top earner after the dairy industry.
However, he pointed out, contributions of budget tourists to Sarawak’s economy had often been under-rated.
The typical bigger spending ‘hotel tourists’ rarely stayed over three weeks while the budget tourists tended to stay longer, stretching their budget over a longer period, he added.
“In fact, many backpackers have extended their stay here to visit and explore more places,” said Bennet who helps his wife Pauline Maran, a Kelabit, run her budget tourist centre called The Highlands at the Water Front commercial centre in Miri.
He said by staying longer, the budget traveller got to enjoy a more fulfilling experience of being able to interact with more local people and then return home with more stories to tell their families and friends.
On the flipside, he added, a short or rigidly-scheduled packaged tour may not provide much for a memorable experience since it is more ‘rushed’ and perhaps, visitors on such a tour will also have other things to attend to such as a conference or business meeting.
What high-spending tourists experience may be superficial, being insulated from real contacts with the locals. There may not be much of a story or experience to tell back home, let alone promote Sarawak as a venue for corporate or official meetings.
“Sarawak has all the right attractions for budget tourists, mostly backpackers from western countries who prefer exploring on their own rather than following a rigidly-packaged tour,” Bennet explained.
He felt it was unfortunate backpackers were perceived as low-value tourists who did not generate much revenue when, in fact, they form the bulk of tourists in many countries today, bringing in more cash than the relatively fewer big spenders.
“The backpackers may be cost-conscious but they do spend quite a lot on necessities and this benefits the local economy.”
Bennet reasoned that what backpackers saved on costly accommodation and food, they would eventually spend on other things during their stay.
“What they want is a taste of Nature and adventure — not just the luxuries of hotels, restaurant food or shopping — which they can get in most cities anyway.”
While acknowledging that many local people preferred welcoming big-spending tourists who came in private jets or big tour packages, he felt, however, this was not a realistic expectation for the state’s tourism industry.
After all, if big spenders were interested in fancy hotels, restaurants, shopping, and entertainment, surely they could get them in many bigger cities that are traditional choice destinations offering more sophisticated attractions like Paris, London, New York, and Hong Kong, he said. Some of these places have huge theme parks and even casinos or racing clubs that offer gaming or gambling for high rollers.
Bennet felt Sarawak should gear its tourism industry on what it already had to offer, saying: “The state only needs to package its attractions and coordinate the promotion and marketing activities to woo more tourists rather than spend much money and effort trying to lure big spenders away from other well-established cities.”
Customers were like aircraft passengers and if well looked after, would keep coming back, and what passengers saved in cheap airfares offered by budget airlines, they would eventually spend when they arrived and started exploring a country, he added.
Travellers are now cutting back on expensive airfares, hotel accommodation and restaurant foods in a practical way to maximise their experience at a destination, more so now with the world still in the throes of a slow recovering economic downturn.
“I like to help tourists and villagers here. I consider myself helping to channel tourist dollars to others like the Penan guides in the interior,” he said.
Bennet has stayed in Malaysia for about 14 years, and as a pilot, flown 6,000 hours in the Twin Otter over 10 years, including some 500 flights to Bario. During those times, he has met many backpackers and tourists.
According to him, there has been a surge in budget tourism, particularly in the Bario Highlands, with improving accessibility.
“It’s easy to get around in Bario because the locals speak good English while in Mulu, tourists rarely get to see the awesome pinnacles because they are hard to scale,” he said.
Bennet said tourists won’t talk about a trip if it turned out to be a bad experience but would spread the word if it was memorable.
Customers to Bennet’s backpackers’ lodge, located above the Wheels café in Miri can expect clean beds, rooms and showers, use of the kitchen, washing machines and internet facilities — all at a modest and flat rate of about RM25 per person.
“Tourists have complained that the popular Mulu itinerary is too commercialised and restrictive — high prices are charged for every little thing like side-tracking,” he revealed.
The budget tourists, he added, enjoyed flexibility in their itineraries and would love to side-track occasionally rather than be shepherded with rigid schedules and routes.
He also suggested “linking up Mulu and Bario — two great tourist destinations — with direct connecting flights as this will be most convenient.”
“There is a shortage of flights to Bario — as a pilot, I have seen many local folks lining up everyday trying to catch a flight.”
The lack of connecting flights in the Bario Highlands, he pointed out, had caused many frustrated backpackers to bypass it in favour of places like Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
After all, after spending so much money and still finding the visit unpleasant, they might view it as a rip-off and would not recommend Sarawak to other visitors.
Promotion through word of mouth has been known to be very effective, especially with increasing use of blogs and social networking websites in which even ordinary folks can write about their travels.
Every tourist should be treated as an asset and potential ambassador — whether big spenders or budget travellers.
On a one-to-one basis, the big spenders may seem very attractive customers but if they are only a handful, their overall contribution to the local economy becomes negligible.
While not every tourist will help promote Sarawak, chances of the many more budget tourists spreading the word of their pleasant experiences and stories in the state are conceivably greater than the relatively fewer big spenders more preoccupied with other agendas.
A thumbs-up from a satisfied and happy tourist may translate into free and effective promotion for Sarawak, regardless of budget. After all, Sarawak is much better known as the Land of Hornbills, and few countries can compare with its unique heritage.
Tourists do not come to Sarawak for its mega shopping malls, large hotels, fancy restaurants, entertainment centres or first class public transportation and infrastructure that they have already covered in many other destinations around the world.
Even if the big spenders were to land here, they may still have to backpack to see and enjoy the state’s greatest treasures — majestic caves, rivers, tropical rainforests and enchanting highlands.
It is the development of these off-the-road destinations like comfortable lodges, homestays, markets and eating places that should be getting the right attention.
This will, in turn, help spread the benefits of tourism to more regions of the state, instead of being concentrated only in a few cities.
Currently, Sarawak’s natural heritage is already attracting quite a number of budget tourists whose contributions to the industry and the local economy should not be taken for granted.
Instead of worrying about how deep the tourists’ pockets are, the industry should try to make the tourists’ stay as pleasant and memorable as possible, bearing in mind that a bird in hand is worth two in the bush.