Tuesday, August 11

Why Sabah has outclassed us in their tourism efforts


FIRST off I am a loyal Sarawakian and am proud of that fact! I have worked for the past fifty years throughout Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei and my travelling on and off duty had taken me to Peninsular Malaysia as well as our nearest neighbours of Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

I have worked as a marketing executive, a motor trader, a real estate negotiator, a film maker and a journalist. I have also visited the places mentioned as a tourist as well as when performing my line of work. In simple words I can say that I am giving an informed opinion.

Thirty-three years ago in the year 1987 I was recruited to be part of the first full length feature film that Hollywood had selected to be shot entirely on location in Sarawak – that was Andre Morgan’s Orion Pictures’ production of ‘Farewell to the King’ directed by John Milius and starring Nick Nolte. I was pulled in by Ralph Marshall who was Ananda Krishnan’s right hand man (but at that time he was with Gopala Krishnan, AK’s brother at Jemima Films). The man who had actually brought in the movie from Hollywood was Chandran Rutnam, who had been instrumental in enticing Steven Spielberg to shoot ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ in Sri Lanka.

The film producers came to Sarawak for three essential prerequisites – the jungle, the people and the unique locations.

Today, tourists are spoilt for choice when they want to travel to see and experience the wild, exotic and adventurous Far East or South East Asia. From my personal experience, tourists (and more particularly film makers) are not attracted to Malaysia – but they are very interested in BORNEO. The name alone makes it sound wild, primitive, romantic, mysterious and a Shangri-la aura hovers above it. If you look at the atlas and see Borneo on the map, just the sheer geography of the island, floating in the middle of the big blue ocean and surrounding sea, nestled between the southern tip of the Malay peninsula and the next big land mass of Australia – anyone would be excited about its mystic and its pure remoteness.

Sometime in a past Sarawak Tourism Board promotion campaign they had cleverly emphasized on the name BORNEO rather than Malaysia or even Sarawak. I believe that was a most successful campaign. The posters themselves were indeed works of art.

Our neighbour Sabah is blessed with many natural and wild life attractions. So are we. Whatever they have, we have an equivalent: for mount Kinabalu, we have the Mulu caves; for Sipadan we have Bako and the Miri off shore diving spots; for Sepilok we have Semengoh. We are equally matched. To the extent that the racial composition is as diverse as well; ours with Iban, Bidayuh, Melanau and Kelabits and others to their Kadayans, Muruts, Bajau and Suluks… the list goes on and on. For our native traditional tuak they have lihing. For our Gawai Dayak they have Harvest Festival, many other commonalities exist between us as well.

So where then are the differences? What’s the edge that they seem to have over us, especially when it comes to attracting the tourist dollar, the numbers and the continued success of their many tourism campaigns? It is fair to say that for every single tourist that visits Sarawak they have 10, maybe even 15.

In my personal opinion it all boils down to three main issues – airlines flights, the element of human passion and the state of the developed destinations.

There is a disproportionate number of international airlines and direct flights that land in Kuching and in Kota Kinabalu; I don’t have the statistics but the number of airlines flying into KK are at least five or six times more than to Kuching. In 2018 alone, 8.62 million passengers landed in KK compared to 5.56 million for Kuching; via 79,044 aircraft landings compared to 56,876. (Stats by Wikipedia)

Kuching International Airport hasn’t been able to attract as many airlines nor direct flights.

So if we have equally attractive tourist destinations why can’t we seem to get the show on the road? Is it because of the people factor? Are our people less passionate at doing their jobs – be it at the STB, the STF, the tour agents, inbound tour operators and everyone involved in the travel industry? Don’t we have enough professional tourist guides, tour buses or skilled crafts artisans?

I have to admit that we do seem to lack sufficient personnel with the right attitude and the human passion who are working in this line of work; insofar as compared to the folks I have personally met in Sabah, at all levels of the industry. Sabah seems to have this human factor primed for success and they have been doing it well for a rather long time. We on the other hand have many weak links throughout the chain of command within the industry itself. Attitude too seems to be a challenging factor; this is turn could be due to a lack of the proper work ethos which seems to pervade the industry at large. Human motivation as well as unclear career paths may be other reasons; unattractive wage remuneration is definitely another.

The third and final factor is the state of our tourist attractions. In Sabah I have seen the major attractions of Kinabalu National Park, Sepilok, Sipadan, Kinabatangan, Danum Valley and the recently discovered Maliau Basin to be all fully developed and well maintained and efficiently operated and managed. Sad to say I cannot say the same for our major tourist spots of Bako, Mulu, Semengoh and the various longhouse homestays and even the state of our historical buildings. Just look at the major beachfront hotels in Damai and Santubong which have been in a terrible state of disrepair and have not seen any renovation or maintenance for many years! In Sabah even the most humble home stay accommodation outshines any of them in comparison!

Tourism is a sunrise industry, it will be the biggest revenue earner in years to come and it is very much worthwhile right now to invest and put more time, effort and passion into doing it right. Sabah is already there. Surely we can and must catch up.