THE clicking of a computer mouse resonated across Rumah Jimbun in Bawang Assan, some 45 minutes’ drive from town.
Macarthy Gindau was glued to the computer screen while connecting to prospective tourists across the globe.
Rumah Jimbun is among eight longhouses in Bawang Assan taking part in a homestay programme. The others are Rumah Michael, Rumah Dennis, Rumah Stanley, Rumah Roseline, Rumah Abell, Rumah Peter and Rumah Anthony.
Macarthy, the Bawang Assan Homestay Programme chairman, said digital economy offered vast potential for homestay operators to boost their income.
Indeed, homestays are an exciting aspect of rural tourism where visitors, especially those from overseas, sign up to experience the local cultures and longhouse life.
According to the World Bank, tourism is one of the fastest growing and most important economic sectors in the world, providing benefits to both host communities and destination areas.
It stated that in 2017, international tourist arrivals reached a new record high at over 1.3 billion, according to the latest UNWTO Tourism Highlights.
The sector has now seen uninterrupted growth in arrivals for eight straight years. It also represents 10.4 per cent of GDP and in 2017, the tourism industry supported 313 million jobs or one in 10 jobs globally.
Digitalising rural tourism
Rural tourism has become one of the most developed areas in Malaysian tourism, bringing many economic benefits, especially to underdeveloped areas which need employment-income opportunities and revitalisation (Liu, 2006; Sharpley, 2002).
According to the International Journal of Business and Society, Vol 18 S4, 2017, 775-782, rural tourism has become a dynamically developing area in tourism.
Rural tourism has benefited the local communities economically as digital marketing has allowed information to be transmitted directly to potential visitors with a click of a mouse — without the need for an intermediary — in a low-cost but effective way.
Rural tourism destinations in Sarawak now stand to benefit from the Sarawak government’s “go digital” initiative.
Apart from developing physical infrastructure, a national priority is to develop ICT in rural areas to improve the local communities’ communications with the outside world. With the help of ICT, rural tourism industries have risen up and tourist behaviour, when making purchases for tourism activities, has changed (Buhalis & Law, 2008).
Connecting to global market
Macarthy said operators of Bawang Assan Homestay Programme were among the many who had turned to the Internet to reach out to a larger global market.
The Internet has certainly done wonders to Bawang Assan Homestay Programme operators.
“We’ve recorded a jump in the number of visitors. The domestic ones are from the peninsula and also the undergraduate groups.The foreign ones come from Sweden, Canada, England, Holland, France, China, Korea, USA and other European countries,” he added.
Having benefited from the digital economy, Macarthy hoped to sell their handicrafts online next year.
“This way, we can market our handicrafts to a larger world market and are not confined to the local market,” he stressed.
University College of Technology Sarawak (UCTS) School of Computing and Creative Multimedia senior lecturer, Gary Loh Chee Wyai, said the first thing UCTS did for the homestay operators at Bawang Assan was creating a website to promote their product.
“We’re proud of UCTS’ achievement as the Bawang Assan homestays are now getting more tourists.The website is maintained under our Service Learning course with students being hands-on doing a real world project for the community.
“The website url is www.bawangassan.com. Using Internet to promote their homestay is also part of the digital economy.”
Loh said the Internet had changed and would continue to change the whole world, adding: “If we don’t follow the trend, we’ll be left behind and it’ll be hard to catch up.”
Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah regarded the homestay programme as ‘how the business should be conducted in the digital era.’
“This is not something new. All over the world and most homestays, lodging houses, AirBNB (house-hosting operations) are using the Internet to promote themselves and get connected to prospective clients.
“We’re living in the digital age and that’s how business is being done now. Advertising in newspapers and Yellow Pages as before is slowly declining in a sunset industry.
“I believe this also applies to other industries, including our cottage industry,” the Asajaya assemblyman added.
Puncak Borneo MP Willie Mongin hoped homestay entrepreneurs would use their imagination and original ideas to create attractive packages via social media and market their homestays and respective products to the international market.
Opening a workshop on ‘Sarawak Next Paradise Homestay,’ organised by UCSI University together with MyCenthe at the Bengoh Resettlement Scheme, Jalan Borneo Heights, Kuching in July this year, he said: “Now, we can no longer rely on conventional methods to do business, including marketing homestay programmes.”
Enhancing digital infrastructures
In a keynote address to the International Digital Economy Conference Sarawak (Idecs) 2018 at the Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK) in May this year, Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg said the state government planned to build 657 communication towers this year as part of efforts to improve Internet coverage in the state.
So far, 1,532 communication towers have been built.
“To date, for telecommunication and broadband infrastructures, we have improved connectivity to 78 per cent for 3G and 48 per cent for 4G.
“By the end of 2020, I’m confident we will achieve full coverage of broadband services statewide,” he added.
Abang Johari pointed out that the telecommunication and broadband infrastructures would be strategically located to improve services at tourist spots, manufacturing plants and commercial centres to facilitate the growth of digital economy.
“Last year, I announced an initial RM1 billion to implement the digital infrastructure so that we could achieve Internet coverage throughout Sarawak and increase the speed to 100Mps in urban areas and 20 to 80Mps in rural areas.
“Over the next three years, more funds will be allocated to complete 100 per cent coverage, if necessary.”
Tourism is one of the anchor sectors of Sarawak’s digital economy. The strategic plan is to promote Sarawak via digital media such as blogs, websites, Facebook and other digital channels, besides providing a digital platform for tourism products and service providers to boost their businesses.
There is also the personalisation of tourist experience online.
Impact on rural community
According to UCTS’ Loh, for the rural folk in Sarawak, the impact will be greater connectivity and wider market to sell their products to the rest of the world
“Digital economy is something we really need to work towards and it’s not something we can wait and turn back anymore,” he noted.
UCTS has been actively doing research to support the development and deployment of communication and connectivity infrastructures in Sarawak.
Loh said as the deployment of fibre optics to the rural areas in Sarawak was extremely challenging, it could not be done in a year or two but might take another four to eight years. Thus, he added, much research and development was needed to provide alternative connections before the whole fibre (optics) could be rolled out.
Citing Estonia, he said it was already reaping the harvest of transforming the whole country into a digital economy.
“Just look at the blockchain technology the Estonian government embraced a few years ago. Now they’re the leading country in terms of sharing patients records among their hospitals.
“Malaysia has announced a similar plan. It shows we are ready to change and embrace a new digital technology. With a digital economy, the first change will be the way the people share information and use it as knowledge to move forward. In a digital economy, we no longer pay a higher price for certain things.
“For example, we’re using e-hailing service rather than the conventional taxis. We now see a fair playing field as everyone can participate in this e-hailing business.
“In other words, digital economy will open up the markets and enable everyone to participate in them.”
To help the younger generation tap such potential, Loh said the university had a compulsory e-Commerce course besides other campus activities where the use of different digital platforms was promoted to expose the students to new technologies.
Big Data, Blockchain technology and Internet of Things (IoT) have been gradually introduced.
“Although it’s not a full course yet, it’ll be good enough for the students to acquire some knowledge about all these new coming giant technologies which we can’t stop from taking over our way of life, especially in the digital world – not only in the digital economy itself,” he explained.
Digital platform and tourism future
According to the World Bank, the tourism industry is vital to the growth of the majority of developing economies, with the potential to create millions of jobs and promote entrepreneurship and innovation.
In essence, digital technologies have the potential to give small tourism businesses in emerging destinations direct access to a global market of travel consumers for the first time, vastly expanding their prospects.
Macarthy, for one, can vouch for such potential as the Bawang Assan Homestay Programme has seen a jump in the number of visitors ever since they wired themselves to the global market.
To tap into the digital economy, Sarawak is setting aside a big budget to upgrade its digital infrastructure to extend 4G services to all parts of the state.
Chief Minister Abang Johari had said this was done to fulfil the vision of industrialising Sarawak’s economy from commodity and agriculture-based to digitalisation by 2030.
“When I took over as Chief Minister in 2017, I had the conviction that Sarawak has to move away from conventional economy to one driven by digital technologies. We have to follow the rest of the world towards the digitalisation of our economy which presents vast opportunities for us beyond the shores of Sarawak.
“Sarawak has a population of about 2.8 million and this is not sufficient to support a strong domestic economy and we have to turn to the rest of Asia with a population of three billion as markets for our products, agricultural products in particular.
“We still have large tracts of land which landowners can develop to produce food. I believe with smart and precision farming, and Internet of Things (IoT), coupled with good marketing strategies and logistics, we can penetrate the Asian food market and become a net exporter of food,” he said in his acceptance speech after being conferred with honorary doctorate by Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia on Dec 20.