KOTA KINABALU: Sabah’s tourism industry came to a standstill for the most of 2020 due to the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic.
As a state which depended on air connectivity to bring in tourists, Sabah’s tourism industry was hit hard when direct and charter flights to the state from countries with Covid-19 cases recorded were stopped early 2020.
The situation was made worse when the Movement Control Order (MCO) and subsequent Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO) were imposed by the federal government as it banned inter-state and inter-district travels.
However, with the availability of a vaccine this year, things are beginning to look up for the tourism industry nationwide and Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president Datuk KL Tan spoke with The Borneo Post about the recovery of the Sabah’s tourism industry.
Tan was asked for his opinion on how soon he thinks the state’s tourism industry would start to recover and he replied, “Looking at the month of January, it has not been positive. With inter-district and inter-state travels being confined again obviously the next three months will not be positive.”
This is because, according to Tan, Sabah tourism industry is predominantly dependent on domestic and international tourism.
“We recorded more that 2.7 million domestic arrivals in 2019, but because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sabah only recorded over 700,000 domestic arrivals from January to September 2020,” he said.
Tan pointed out that there are also now health and safety protocols which the industry has to accept such as the compulsory quarantine earlier in the year and the subsequent three-day RTK testing for those flying in from other states to Sabah.
“To answer your question, for the next six months, the tourism recovery is much dependent on travelers from Peninsular Malaysia in the leisure and business markets. By that time we hope that the vaccine will be available to more Malaysians.
“The whole recovery of the industry is only possible when the vaccine is widely available. Of course the situation is very fragile and uncertain… the keyword is fragile and uncertain,” said Tan.
Tourism players in Sabah will need to focus on the FIT (Free Independent Travelers) who are travelers who plan their own trips and prefer to travel alone or in small groups, he said.
FITs are the opposite of mass tourists, who travel in large groups and buy predefined travel packages.
Tan pointed out that in Sabah we have an advantage because looking at travelers’ behavioral patterns changing preference, eco tourism will be the product that travelers look for.
“They will look for aspirational travel, eco-tourism, rural tourism that will connect them with the locals. But this will be in very small groups. Of course FIT comes in two segments, one that depends on travel agents and the other is really independent as they are the ones who do their research of a destination and all it has to offer online.”
The first segment are travelers, like a family who travels to a destination of choice, then seeks out a travel agent to make tour arrangements, Tan disclosed.
“Moving forward, Sabah has the advantage because we are already well known for our eco-tourism and now travelers want a lot of space so shopping and sightseeing, mass tourism are all a thing of the past.
“Pre-Covid, we were concerned about overcrowding in some of the tourist attractions like the islands until we had to set a limit to the number of daily visitors. So when tourism resets for Sabah, the concerns over mass tourism, sustainability, zero cost… all these may be a thing of the past.
“As we reset, we also need to brush up on our infrastructure especially in the rural areas like WiFi connection and also Covid insurance. What will happen if you have to undergo quarantine in Sabah, the market must adapt to changes of insurance policy,” he said.
He pointed that the issue today of leisure market being at zero is no confidence to travel because of health concern therefore all tourism stakeholders and the government need to start to rebuild confidence through consistent health and safety protocol.
The tourist guides, travel agents and hoteliers among others, play a very important role in compliance system, he said and stressed that the travelers must be responsible because we do not want to see a ‘tourism cluster’.
“Looking at the situation where air connectivity to Sabah is crucial, flight schedules have been drastically reduced and that is one of the reasons why tourism in the state will find it harder to recover faster compared to other places in Malaysia like Langkawi, Penang and Melaka among others because they have land connectivity.
“It is an uphill battle for us but together the stakeholders with the state Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Jafry Arifin, we will work very closely towards the recovery of the state’s tourism industry.
Tan also urged Sabahans and those in the state to help out by visiting the state’s tourism attractions.
“I hope they will begin to explore the state and see what it has to offer. There are hidden gems which they have not discovered and I am sure that the local attractions would reduce their prices at this time. So we must boost our tourism sector.
“How many have been to Tawau Hills Park or to see the fireflies and proboscis monkeys in Klias? How many have been to Danum Valley, Tabin, Pulau Selingan or Pulau Tiga? There are hiking trails and waterfalls to discover as well as homestays that are waiting to be discovered,” said Tan.
He is also hopeful that after June, once the government can contain the Covid-19 spread, corporate companies from Peninsular Malaysia can consider traveling to Sabah as their choice of destination for incentive trips.
“I believe that there will be some companies cannot travel out of the country so domestic travel is an option for them. Sabah is an excellent choice for the domestic MICE market,” he stressed.