Monday, March 18

The Boeing has landed, what’s next?


A FRIEND in Sibu tells his visitor who wants to spare him the trouble of seeing the latter off at the airport: “No visitor who has friends in Sibu should go to airport by taxi.”

Such a remark speaks volumes of the warm hospitality of a close-knit community with friendly people.

Supporting my friend’s caring attitude is a taxi driver who told me his customers are mostly salespersons from peninisular Malaysia and generally, people, both locals and visitors alike, who have friends in Sibu, rarely call a cab if they want to go the airport.

This seems to make sense when you consider that in the dictionary of Sibu people, airport is a meeting point of friends and loved ones – with all the farewell hugs and handshakes thrown in.

So understandably, when a new airport became operational in Sibu in 1994, it marked a high point in the life of the locals.

The headline splashed prominently on the front page of The Borneo Post on June 1, 1994, read: The Boeing has landed. Thousands applaud landing of first aircraft at new Sibu airport.

It captured the excitement in the air quite beautifully.

Almost two decades on as I read the article again, I could still sense the underlying sentiment and excitement of that day so long ago when the locals marked the opening of their new airport with such fanfare and joy.

Indeed, a jet airliner touching down in Sibu for the first time called for a celebration. For after all, the people had hitherto only seen the propeller-powered Fokker Friendship or Twin Pioneer landing and taking off on the old runway.

Read the report filed by Thomas Tiang and Raymond Tan:

As early as 5pm, the crowd, with some coming from neighbouring towns of Sarikei and Bintangor, started to gather at the new airport.

The 270 parking bays for private vehicles were all occupied when darkness crept in, and visitors, who came in thereafter, had to line their vehicles by the road leading to the airport.

The Boeing 737-400 from Kuala Lumpur, flight MH7338 touched down at 7.50 pm. It carried 13 passengers.

This is the first time that Boeing landed in Sibu.

With the historic landing by the Boeing airliner and after the initial excitement, Sibu people got to enjoy some good air connectivity to the cities across the country.

In the beginning, there were two daily return flights provided by the national carrier — from Sibu to Kuala Lumpur. Later, with the introduction of low cost carrier AirAsia, another two flights were added.

AirAsia went on to provide air connectivity (from Sibu) to Kota Kinabalu and also mounted direct flights to Johor.

For a while, it seemed direct air connectivity from Sibu to Sabah, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore via Johor would bring in more tourists.

However, as time went by, it became apparent that the volume of passengers did not justify the operation of so many direct flights.

So what remain today are one daily direct flight by Malaysia Airlines and four flights by AirAsia to Kuala Lumpur, and four weekly flights to Johor.

Undoubtedly, with the landing of the Boeing 737-400 and the resultant improved air connectivity, Sibu has taken a few big steps forward over the past two decades.

We have seen international conferences, especially those for clans, being held here.

Conferences of religious bodies, NGOs and uniformed groups have also taken place here, not forgetting the periodical cultural performances — both local and foreign.

The exception is, of course, the Borneo Cultural Festival, the biggest annual event on record, which has yet to be included in Sibu’s calendar for international tourists.

As such, movements of visitors during the festival are limited to the neighbouring towns.

As for food, every now and then, we see personal friends of the locals coming over to savour Sibu’s unique gastronomic offerings like kongpia, kangpua and dianpianngu, to name a few.

The reviews on the facebooks and blogs of these friends have, in fact, introduced such one-of-a-kind delicacies to the world at large, all rightly due to the innovation – and hospitality, one might add — of the people in the Division.

Sibu, also known as the New Foochow, is a town with numerous dialectic clans, religions and renowned corporate bodies.

Although the pace of development appears rather slow and is a burning issue among some quarters, there is ample room for Sibu to strategise and capitalise on the hospitality of its sociable and amiable people in an endeavour to develop its very own unique tourism industry.

We have been talking about eco-tourism as a wealth generator but let’s face it, to many of us, eco-tourism has become a mere jargon.

But are we going to stop here just because we have fewer Boeing flights coming in now or because Rv Orient Pandaw had cruised into the sunset along the mighty Rajang this year due to logistical and operational difficulties?

Are we going to drop the anchor because there is limited air connectivity — and minus one river cruise?

On a brighter note, we are, once again, feeling the excitement in the air with the airport being upgraded but the vivacity is perhaps a bit premature since we know extensions of the boarding area and the public carpark as well as an increase in aerobridges will not automatically augment air connectivity.

Airline companies do not base the feasibility and profitability of their operations on bigger and nicer airports per se. To be sure, they do scrutinise the ‘ringgit and sen’ part of the operation very closely. This is quite understandable, given the stiff competition within the airline industry nowadays.

It’s time to move on to the next chapter.

Have we ever thought about our unique parks, built and maintained partly by the different associations in the town itself?

Have we lost sight of Bukit Lima Nature Park’s potential as nature tourist spot where we can see rare species of birds and listen to their songs?

Have we forgotten to take a stroll around Forestry Park – at least once in a while — and listen the sounds of insects and birds just to get close to Nature, away from the monotonous routine of the office and the hustle and bustle of city life?

Do we know about the dato tree (rain tree) at the Tua Pek Kong Temple which was used as shade by rickshaw pullers and wharf coolies in the old days?

Over a century has passed, this arboreal shelter has lost none of its usefulness in shielding people from the heat of the sun?

Do we know that chickens, wrapped in newspapers and sold at the Central Market in compliance with the requirement of the city council for hygienic reasons, are described as “tube chickens” by visitors?

Do we know that visitors are charmed by the greens and cleanliness all over Sibu?

And of course, the mighty Rajang River which needs no introduction.

Let’s get back to basics – our hospitality, unique history, diverse cultures, great foods and affordable hotels and transport are all available and ready.

So, what’s the next chapter?

The Boeing had landed almost two decades ago.

Now, what’s going to be our big headline next?