Every year, millions of tourists visited the ‘Land of Hornbill’ to discover and explore the state.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak, there were 3.27 million tourists both foreign and domestic who visited the state back then in 2010. The number steadily rose to 4.86 million visitors in 2014.
With the encouraging figures and trend, the state is on track to attract five million tourists arrival this year.
Tourism Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg said the state has the potential to achieve the target as there was a seven per cent increase in tourist arrival in March and eight per cent in April this year compared to the same period last year.
He said, “The number is encouraging and we will work hard to bring in more tourists to Sarawak.
“The service providers are expected to offer quality service and hospitality to welcome more tourists.
“Apart from our culture, our history is another attraction of ours,” he was quoted as saying recently.
He added the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak was looking forward to bringing in more tourists from the Middle East and China to boost the retail businesses in particular shopping as they were known to be big spenders of luxury goods.
In the first quarter of this year (1Q15), statistics from the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak’s website showed that the percentage of tourist arrivals into Sarawak has grown 8.1 per cent year-on-year (y-o-y) to 1.2 million as compared with 1.11 million in 1Q14.
If the favourable trend continues for the remaining months of the year, the number of tourist arrivals could even exceed the five million figure targeted by the state government.
The Ministry of Tourism Sarawak observed tourists from Singapore, Canada, United Kingdom, US, Japan, Europe, the Philippines and Latin America recorded higher month-on-month arrivals in the first three months of this year.
Additionally, tourists from Brunei, India, China, Thailand, South Korea and Indonesia also recorded steady increase in 1Q15.
As for 2014, out of the total of 4.86 million tourists who visited Sarawak, 3 million were foreign tourists while domestic tourists from Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah contributed 1.86 million people.
Compared to the whole of 2013, total visitor arrivals into Sarawak increased by 11 per cent in 2014 with a total of 4.37 million people visited the state in the year before last.
Out of the total of 4.37 million tourists in 2013, 2.66 million people were foreign tourists while 1.71 million people were domestic tourists.
Last year, more tourist from Hong Kong, Australia and from Belgium/ Luxembourg/Netherlands visited Sarawak.
Tourist from Hong Kong registered a surge of 90 per cent to 1,007 people followed by Australia (50.16 per cent) 31, 955 people and Belgium/Luxembourg/Netherlands (39.47 per cent) 12,778 citizens, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak.
On another note, total tourism receipts reached double-digit figure of RM10.69 billion last year against RM9.59 billion in 2013, an increase of 11.5 per cent.
With higher amount of spending by tourists, the revenue is expected to enhance the state’s economy.
Abang Johari recently revealed that the RM10.6 billion tourism receipts was equivalent to 17 per cent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
On a larger picture, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said with Asean expected to generate combined GDP of US$3 trillion by 2017, there is opportunity to boost the travel industry and promote intra-region tourism.
Additionally, with the Asean economy moving towards greater integration, there could be higher number of people traveling within Asean countries and thus enhancing tourism industry.
Travel within Asean was reported to have logged 100 million tourists in 2014 with 45 per cent of travel from Asean countries.
Given the amount of travel made by tourists within Asean as well as tourists from other countries, the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak is also gearing up to welcome more tourist into Sarawak this year.
Efforts to attract more tourist arrivals
In conjunction with Malaysia Year of Festivals 2015, the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak has lined up several major events to boost tourists arrival.
Those include Borneo Cultural Festival, Bario Food Festival, Sarawak International Dragon Boat Regatta, Borneo International Kite Festival and the yearly Rainforest World Music Festival.
Besides festive events, one of the highlight events this year was the Asean International Films Festival and Awards (Aiffa) which was organised by the tourism ministry earlier this year.
Professionals from the entertainment industry in the Asean region which also include the presence of international superstar Datuk Jackie Chan and Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh took part at the event.
Other than that, there are also some local events for instance Padawan Raft Safari 2015, Kuching Marathon 2015, Serian Cultural Fiesta and Traditional Dance Competition, Pesta Sematan which are being planned to draw more crowd and tourists.
With the expectation of more tourists coming to Sarawak, more facilities will be constructed.
Abang Johari said, “A theme park and a hotel will be built in Pasir Panjang, Santubong which will be completed in three years’ time.
“One international hotel will be built near the airport and the other is at The Isthmus.
“We will upgrade 14 forts in the state and turn them into tourist spots,” he said.
Meanwhile, members of the East Asia Inter-Regional Tourism Forum (Eatof) including Sarawak signed a joint declaration to enhance collaboration in promoting the tourism industry within East Asia last year.
This declaration is aimed to make Eatof the tourism platform for regional cooperation and partnership.
Abang Johari, who represented the state government at the signing ceremony, said participating members will promote their tourism products particularly historical sites and ecotourism by creating packages that would be linked with products from other provinces.
He opined that the new facet of Sarawak’s tourism industry is ecotourism.
He said, “Ecotourism is a product that is available in all Eatof member provinces. In fact, ecotourism is one of the strength of the Southeast Asia region and the Standing Committee has agreed to promote ecotourism through helping one another,” he said.
Therefore, the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak will continue to offers tourists the opportunity to explore the state through its unique selling point of culture, adventure and nature (CAN) as Sarawak is known for its diverse culture and biodiversity as well as vast amount of natural reserve.
A touch of the silver screen
Besides the unique selling point of CAN, new areas which include filmmaking, food and sports events are touted as potential segments which are able to attract more visitors.
Abang Johari noted that film is another medium to attract tourists.
“New Zealand which usually relied on agriculture is now making much from tourism after the shooting of ‘The Lord of The Rings’ in the country,” he said.
He revealed that the tourism ministry has set up a special unit to assist film makers from China and South Korea who had shown keen interests in shooting films in Sarawak after the state hosted Aiffa in April.
Ministry of Tourism Sarawak permanent secretary Datu Ik Pahon Joyik noted a group of film producers, film directors and media from China and South Korea were present at Aiffa Film Biz World Seminar and Exhibition where they shared and discussed areas of interest.
He observed three memorandum of understanding (MoU) were signed during Aiffa Show Biz Seminar with three movies to be filmed in Sarawak.
An interesting developing concerning filmmaking is a production about the history of Sarawak with a film known as ‘White Rajah’ in the making.
Margate House Films, a film production company is working with Brooke Trust – a UK charity working to preserve and share Sarawak’s history and heritage and the history of the Brooke Family – to shoot the film in Sarawak.
The film production company’s chairman Rob Allyn believed the film could be a significant boon to the tourism industry noting that it would be the biggest budget film ever to be produced in Sarawak.
He observed that Sarawak has wonderful scenery and good settings for filmmaking adding that shooting the film, ‘White Rajah’ in Sarawak is a filmaker’s dream.
Furthermore, some local artists made use of the landscape in the state for instance the beautiful beaches to shoot music video or short films there.
Sarawak Dayak Filmmaking Association president Benny Zachariah disclosed last year that the association was looking to promote Sibu as a film city.
He observed that some of the good locations include Bukit Aup Jubilee Park, Bawang Assan Homestay and the surrounding town area which include express boat terminal and the Rajang Basin area.
Some industry players foresee the natural environment such as national park, river as well as the people and small villages as the ideal scene for film making.
Growing appetite for food tourism
Another attraction for tourist to visit Sarawak is the exotic taste of the local food.
Food, one of the most talked about topics in our daily conversation could be a great pull factor in promoting tourism.
One of the famous local delicacies Sarawak Laksa, have made a hit recently.
International renowned US chef and television personality Anthony Bourdain who was in Kuching for filming lately, was seen having a bowl of Sarawak Laksa at a local coffee shop.
After having the dish, he tweeted “Yessssssss”….#laksa #Kuching on his Twitter account which he has more than 2.13 million followers and also uploaded a picture of a bowl of Sarawak Laksa.
Other than Sarawak Laksa, Ayam Pansuh or chicken cooked in bamboo is also a favourite among the locals.
It is commonly served by the Iban and the Bidayuh especially during festive celebration like Gawai Dayak.
Another interesting dish is the ikan terubok masin or salted terubok fish and Sarawak Umai or raw fish salad.
These dishes could become iconic products for Sarawak in promoting tourism to foreign tourists.
On a similar topic, Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz said some 27.4 million tourists spent RM10.4 billion on food and beverage during their visit to Malaysia last year.
He said, “Food is tourists’ third biggest expenditure component after accommodation and shopping.
“It also shows that the variety of food available in Malaysia is also an awesome draw that benefits the country’s tourism industry,” he said.
Gearing up for sports tourism
Tourists may not just come to Sarawak for leisure and business – they may visit the state to participate or join certain events such as marathon or cycling competitions.
Last year, the inaugural Kuching Marathon attracted 5,000 participants where 2,000 were foreigners with Bruneians constituted the majority of the participants.
The annual event which will be held in August this year is also hoped to witness a big turnout.
Besides Kuching Marathon, there were also various marathon events held in major towns such as Sibu and Bintulu that attracted foreigners.
Marathon aside, there is also cycling event.
A cycling competition known as the Al-Bait Cycle Race held in May has brought in cyclists from Brunei, Kalimantan and Peninsular Malaysia.
Going to motor sport, the Padawan International 4×4 Off-Road Extreme Challenge had also been earmarked as one of the sports that can be promoted for tourism.
It is believed that the sport has the potential to attract international participants as well as become a tourism product of Sarawak.
Another popular sport that has been included in the calendar of event is golf.
Under the 11th Malaysia Plan (11MP), a golf course and a floating jetty is being planned in Sri Aman to spur eco-tourism there.
It is targeted to attract tourists from China, South Korea and Japan.
Touching about nature, hot spring could be a favourite among local tourists.
Ik Pahon during a visit to Panchor Hot Spring believed that hot spring has the potential to serve as a recreational activities for tourists.
“The hot spring at Kampung Panchor has great potential and with the involvement of the relevant government agencies and the local community, it could one day become a popular tourist spot.
“I understand that this place has been receiving lots of visitors from (South) Korea, Japan and other Asian countries and we are confident the number will continue to grow,” he said.
Community leader Penghulu Sirau Lungkis noted most people went to Panchor Hot Spring for health reasons while observing that some would go alone or with family members.
Better hospitality services in the offing
Pullman Kuching, one of the five-star hotels in the Kuching city will set up to provide quality services to its guests.
Its newly appointed general manager Terry Butt-Gow is looking to reinvent the service offering of the hotel as well as its human capital development.
Butt-Gow, who has more than 30 years of experience in the hotel industry including 19 years working under the Accor Group of Hotels in Thailand revealed that his main task will be to lay down the foundation for the hotel’s next phase of growth.
“We are going to reinvent ourselves by giving a new facelift to guests through better services.
“(Besides that), we are going to upgrade our food and beverage services such as providing international fine dining and authentic Thai cuisine.
“We are also planning to refurbish the room as well as the colours and designs.
“We want to give our guests different feeling and ambience while staying at Pullman Kuching,” he explained.
Butt-Gow noted Pullman Hotels, which is under the dynamic Accor Hotels, will reinvent certain service concepts back into consumer tastes and choices to meet the ongoing changes of expectations in every five to seven years.
He observed that hotel under Accor Hotels Properties spread across 36 countries worldwide offers multi-cultural experience for guests.
Meanwhile, Butt-Gow said his immediate task will be to increase the branding and the awareness of the hotel through various channels.
Subsequently, he added he will focus on the human resource development of the hotel’s employees through training by incorporating more international concepts and practices into the operations.
Finally, he said, “My endeavour is to put Pullman to be one of the top five-star hotels in Kuching by bringing the level of services in Pullman Kuching to a higher level.
Weakening ringgit a boon for tourism industry
Early this month, the ringgit slided to a nine-year low of RM3.76 against the US dollar as foreign funds sold off some of their holdings of Malaysian securities on expectations of an interest rate increase by the US Federal Reserve.
At the same time, weak commodity prices and strengthening of the US dollar are among the factors which have contributed to the weakening ringgit.
Besides that, the ringgit also dropped to a new low level of RM2.80 against the Singapore dollar last week amid concerns that Malaysia’s sovereign debt rating might be downgraded.
While the depreciation of the ringgit is not a good news for most Malaysians, foreign tourists will be among those who are the most delighted.
Besides foreign tourists, some Singaporean and Bruneian consumers have also crossed over to Malaysia to purchase goods and services.
This is because they have higher purchasing power through the exchange of more ringgit as compared to their home currencies and the relative cheaper cost as a result of the depreciation of the ringgit against their currencies.
Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz recently said the drop in the value of the ringgit is a positive thing for the tourism industry adding that the depreciation of the value of the ringgit gave the country an advantage.
“When the value of the ringgit drops, I am the happiest person.
“This can attract tourists to the country and they can spend money and feel like kings,” he was quoted as saying.
He added, “To get money back into the country, the tourism industry plays an important part to get money which has been taken out returned to the country.”
While the weak ringgit benefits foreign travelers, some currency strategists and economists believed that the ringgit will remain weak over the next few months which in turn could become a blessing in disguise for the tourism industry this year.
Apart from that, the weak ringgit has also made shopping more appealing.
A research firm observed that due to the weaker ringgit against the US dollar, goods in Malaysia especially in Kuala Lumpur has become cheaper by between 10 per cent and 20 per cent compared to other Asian cities.
The research firm noted the cheaper goods has also made Malaysia one of the cheapest shopping destination in Asia.
With more spending by tourists, the scenario will also boost the retail industry in Malaysia and Sarawak.
Retail industry remains supportive
While the outlook of the retail industry seems to be baffaled by the weak consumer sentiment as a result of the goods and services tax (GST) implementation, there could be ‘silver lining’ for the retail industry to grow.
With the depreciation of the ringgit, people from neighbouring countries for instance Singaporean and Bruneian are taking advantage of the higher values of their home currencies to buy goods in Malaysia and Sarawak thus contributing more sales to the retail sector.
The arrivals of more visitors especially from Brunei will also boost the number of tourist arrivals into the state.
Likewise, local shopping operators believed that retail industry in Sarawak is still growing and has vast potential for growth.
Up and coming shopping mall is Vivacity Megamall, one of the largest shopping mall in Kuching and Sarawak which has approximately 1.2 million square feet (sq ft) of retail space and slated to open its doors to the public in the third quarter of this year.
Moreover, speculation is rife that AEON Mall as well as a few other shopping outlets will be open over the next few years across Sarawak.
They are looking to attract new brands and quality retailers which can attract more shoppers to their shopping malls.
The landscape of the local retail industry is changing and is moving towards providing a one-stop shopping centre for consumers rather than the traditional shopping centre which housed retail outlets.
For instance, some of the upcoming malls will be integrated with other developments among others which include hotels, entertainment parks, water theme parks, condominium and service apartments.
Retail players believe that the concept will provide convenience for shoppers while shopping for good and services as statistics have shown that this development is going to support the expansion of the retail industry in Sarawak especially with higher arrivals of tourist who throng the state in the future.
As tourists spend more to buy goods and services, the state’s tourism receipts will increase, thus enhancing the state’s economic growth.