Friday, September 29

Happy days are here again!


Photo of the good ship Pandaw, lying at the Kanowit jetty.

THESE are happy days for those actively involved in the hospitality business – the transport providers, hoteliers and homestay owners, caterers, souvenir vendors, tour operators, and the government/state itself!

The Covid-19 pandemic damaged the tourism industry worldwide, and Sarawak was no exception. Let’s pray that such a pandemic will never happen again.

Indications are that the trade is picking up slowly. So said the Minister of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Sarawak Dato Sri Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah (The Borneo Post of July 25, 2023).

If this signals a possible influx of visitors in the near future, is the local tourist infrastructure well geared to cater for more visitors of various interests?

A reflection

This ‘industry without chimneys’ has been promoted since the 1970s with some vigour by then – Chief Minister of Sarawak Tun Datuk Patinggi Abdul Rahman Ya’kub.

Senior government officials and local businessmen were encouraged to work together to promote Sarawak as a tourist destination. They were sent to participate in conferences and trade missions.

They attended the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Conference in Penang and managed to organise a post-conference tour of Sarawak for travel writers and agents of tourism companies.

These journalists and agents saw with their own eyes what Sarawak had to offer by way of potential products. Their reports published in their own countries did a good job of putting the state on the tourist map of the world.

Perhaps, people in the industry should acknowledge the contribution made by the pioneers: Choo Poh Hin, Francis Tan, Cheng Yew Kiew, Salleh Askor, Arni Lampam, Andrew Chan Nam Wah, Wee Hood Teck, S.C. Chan Ambrose Wong, Spencer Ong, and George Teo Chin Kuan – to name some of the ardent advocates of the tourist trade in Sarawak.

They saw the beginnings of basic infrastructure – Aurora Hotel, Borneo Hotel, Fata Hotel, Arif Hotel, Holiday Inn, Hilton Hotel and Riverside Majestic. More hospitality facilities began to be built in Sibu, Bintulu and Miri. More resorts were opened at Mulu and Padawan.

Not forgetting the first-ever air-conditioned bus, brought in by Jimmy Choo!

I was a board member of the Federal Tourism Corporation (1971-72) and knew how well they were ‘selling’ Sarawak to the world.

This policy has been continued to this day by the successive government ministries. Sensible.

Before the Sarawak Trade and Tourism Office (Statos) was established in Singapore in 2019, there was already an outfit whose duty was to lure the tourists arriving in the Lion City to  include Sarawak in their itinerary. We were promoting ‘Culture, Adventure, Nature (CAN) tourism at that time.

All efforts to bring visitors from America, Canada and Europe to Sarawak have been hampered by the constraint of connectivity – no direct plane flights or cruises from outside Malaysia to Sarawak!

I am sure the state government has been seriously looking into the problem of connectivity.

Expect more visitors to the state once they can be assured that they would not have to hang around Singapore or Kuala Lumpur airports, waiting for connecting flights.


When the federal Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing was talking about floating restaurants, cruises along the Rajang River as tourist draws (The Borneo Post of July 18, 2023), I was reminded of the good ship Pandaw. She cruised up and down the Rajang for a few years from July 2009.

And then she sailed into the sunset – back to Myanmar, the Irrawaddy River from where she had come.

Last week, I interviewed a former tourist guide looking after the European tourists, mostly Germans. I learned that the Pandaw was not withdrawn because business in Sarawak was bad, but because the tourism trade in Myanmar was picking up.

I also found out that the ‘White Flower’ (Burmese name of Pandaw) did not help the Sibu business community.

I had conversations with several owners of coffee shops and restaurants in Sibu during April this year. They told me that the tourists on the ship did not eat at their restaurants or stalls.

It is understood that the Pandaw provided all meals and drinks on board. Passengers might buy a few souvenirs or small snacks, but never a slap-up eight-course dinner (for which Sibu is famous, I might add).

Food for thought if anyone is trying to revive a Rajang cruise!

Feedback from the tourists is vital. The European tourists do not enjoy the sight of log rafts drifting by while their luxury craft steams upriver – product of the destruction of the rainforests.

Hence the importance of carefully selecting tour guides on the cruise along the Rajang, or the Baram. Pick the one who can explain that log rafts do not mean the forest is being cut – eh?

Not a likely story?

The best thing we can do, both for ethical tourism and for the protection of the environment, is to make sure no more log rafts will be seen on ANY of our rivers.

I am not sure that this can be avoided at all.

So lure tourists by all means to Sarawak, but avoid showing the activities that may damage the image of the country.