Tuesday, March 28

Are we still Asia’s ‘Best Kept Secret’?


Three of the world-famous posters advertising Sarawak as ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret’, in the campaign run by STB in 1987.

ONCE the annals of Sarawak’s brief history of tourism have been written, it would be recorded and recognised that the current era of our modern tourism industry had started in 1976 with the opening of Sarawak’s very first 3-star international-class hotel in Kuching – the Holiday Inn.

Today, 47 years later, we now have a handful of 5-star, 4-star and quite a number of supposedly 3-star hotels, and one can safely say that they are all of ‘international’ standard.

The merging of both the advent of the Internet, and the onslaught of B&Bs and AirBNBs, means that while it is just a click away to make an online booking and another click to make payment, the overall ratings and standards have consolidated (indeed, to be truthful, have dropped) and the entire tourism industry has actually found an almost level playing field in these times.

There are as many low-cost ‘hole-in-the-wall’ backpacker’s one-night joints going for RM35 per night as there are super luxurious, albeit small, boutique hotel rooms going for RM500 per night – all within walking distances of each other.

Location is no longer a vital nor sought-after criteria as much as comfort, prestige and good word of mouth (usually on Tripadvisor).

Some of us who were there when the Holiday Inn was ‘the place in town’ to be seen in – for guests and visitors to stay, to dine and wine at the restaurant, snack in the coffeehouse and dance at the disco – would recall its rather flamboyant and super-efficient Swiss manager, Peter ‘Borneo’ Mueller, who had arrived from its operations in Thailand that year, 1976, to manage the Kuching establishment.

Half a century later, his name, influence and charisma have continued to be talked about in the hospitality industry with respect and awe.

Mueller, indeed, has made his mark. Many of those who were under his tutelage, or by those whom he had mentored, have formed the backbone of our local hotel and services industries today.

Meanwhile, the man had retired to Sitiawan and is now successfully managing his own bakery – a franchise of the gourmet Swiss brand ‘Hiestand’.

One of his many successes was the launch of a brand new tourism product in conjunction with the then-in-its-infancy Sarawak Tourism Board, or the STB (names like Denis Hon and Bibiana Pek) together with Singapore Airlines, or SIA (Lawrence Liew) – an advertising campaign to promote both the city hotel and the then-newly-opened Holiday Inn Damai Beach Resort, especially to the nearby markets of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, was built along the tagline of ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret – Kuching, Sarawak!’, of which three of its famous posters are accompanying this article.

If memory serves me well, during those days a special promotional all-in weekend package tour from Singapore to Kuching for three days, two nights (arriving on Friday, returning to Singapore on Sunday) with a night’s city stay and a night down at Damai Beach – with hotel, transfer and free breakfasts – was sold for under SG$900 per person!

This initial promotion was so successful that it was continued for a year or two, with some variations and permutations, and was probably the most successful tourism promotion that was ever staged by both STB and SIA, and the Holiday Inn, in its history.

What the success had meant for Kuching, and Sarawak as a whole were manifold.

It had made the name and destination known to thousands in Singapore – and to a lesser extent, to Johor and Selangor.

It had brought a sudden surge of customers to all the seafood eateries and food/souvenir vendors at Buntal fishing village and had, in fact, generated a number of new seafood restaurants to open up during this period.

It had also brought in tourists to the small fishing village of Santubong with its quaint wooden shophouses, its Malay houses on stilts, and its scenic and picturesque rivermouth muddied with swampy mangrove roots protruding atop its shallow banks filled with leaping mudskippers and archerfish.

The sudden and massive influx of tourists from across the South China Sea was short-lived and lasted less than a couple of years. In its wake, it had made a few businessmen who were operating in the area a lot of money and had also opened up the surrounding land for easier development.

Many had started planting fruit trees, a few new seafood eateries had sprouted up, a few Malay ‘kampong’ (village) houses displayed new motorcars parked under their homes on stilts, and many inbound tour operators were smiling all the way to their banks with the windfall!

For the locals, this period became known as the time when they could neither get a table nor a booking at the few seafood restaurants operating at Buntal during the weekends, as they were all taken up by inbound tourists from Singapore and the mainland.

Obviously, seafood prices too had begun their swift climb through the stratosphere during this high-flying period of boom times, but since the 2000s when the tourism figures had started dwindling back to ‘normal’, so too have the costs of prawns, crabs and fish.

Another major event happened in 1987 – Hollywood discovered Sarawak.

It was when Sri Lankan filmmaker Chandran Rutnam brought John Milius and Nick Nolte to make ‘Farewell to the King’. This was repeated in 2000 with Jessica Alba and Hugh Dancy in ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’. Both film shoots were big successes for Sarawak but, alas, not at the American box-office!

Some of the cast of the Hollywood film ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’, shot in Sarawak in 2000: (from left) Bob Hoskins, Michael Langgi and Alba.

Back to the promotional efforts of STB/SIA/Holiday Inn, it was no secret that once these stopped, so did the influx of the tourists from across the water – thereafter at various times reboots were tried to replicate their first campaign, but they were never able to repeat the first initial success.

However, the thousands of Singaporeans and mainlanders who had come during those long weekends in the mid-1980s had spread the word of mouth – from surveys done and past recorded feedback, a majority of those who had visited were very satisfied and had enjoyed their time here in ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret’. Top of the list was the sheer affordability of it all – during the 1980s, the currency exchange rate was already over twice the value of our ringgit so for them, it was real value for money.

They had also felt that the locals were friendly; they all speak English, Hokkien and Malay, and Kuching reminded them of home in the 1970s – in other words, Kuching was almost like Singapore in appearance, character and ambiance, but 20 years ‘back in the future!’

They loved the food too.

The 1987 Hollywood film, ‘Farewell to the King’, starring Nolte and Nigel Havers.

For those who had a bit more time (and resources) and were able to stay back a few more days, most of them were interested in visiting Semenggok to see the orangutans, take a day trip to Bako for the nature trail, and to a nearby longhouse for the experience. The more adventurous and sporty types would take a flight out to Sabah to either climb Mount Kinabalu, or go diving at Sipadan.

From personal feedback from friends and tourists, this perception and travel plans for a majority of inbound visitors to Sarawak have not changed since the earliest days of tourism in Sarawak, despite the constant and heavy promotions that we have made to so many parts of the world.

However, the MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) approach seem to have worked and together with the Borneo Convention Bureau, Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK) and their many associates, we have seen an upsurge in the demand for tourism products based on meetings, conventions and events.

Of course, the many established and big-name successes like the Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF), Kuching Waterfront Jazz, Miri Country Music Festival and others would continue to make their impact felt in the world tourism markets and garner good publicity with many online promotions ad nauseam.

Now that the world has returned to normalcy after two and a half years under the pandemic of the coronavirus, we look forward to hosting many other events and activities in the years ahead. There are prospects of a number of documentary film shoots, even a feature film or two, as well as major festivals and conventions being planned.

A leading inbound tour agency has told me that their bookings and forward sales look extremely optimistic for the rest of this year and they are looking at levels that would equal or even better those figures that they had enjoyed pre-March 2020.

My personal take is that we need to relook at a global advertising promotion to remind those who have never heard of us here in Sarawak, that there is still this place which for a brief moment in time in the 1980s, was promoted as and truly was ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret – Kuching Sarawak’.

Before I had sat down to write this week’s column, I had Googled this catch-phrase, and guess what? It is now being used by virtually everyone trying to promote their own unique destination!

It has been used by Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and they have all been inundated by tourists by the millions since!

It is not too late to take back our original tag initiated in 1986. I do believe we were the people who had actually used it first, way back then.

We still are ‘Asia’s Best Kept Secret – Kuching Sarawak’ – never let anyone forget that!