Why isn’t Sarawak hitting the tourism jackpot?

The Gunung Mulu National Park is one of Sarawak’s top tourist attraction. – Pic from Sarawak Tourism Board.

By John Teo

As the nation — and indeed much of the region and even the world — reels from the disruptions to travel and supply chains caused by the coronavirus epidemic sweeping through China, Sarawak can count its lucky stars that it is rather insulated from the strong headwinds now faced by Sabah’s tourism, for example.

International tourists landing in Sarawak have always been thin on the ground even at the best of times. International hotels, even in Kuching, have had a rather languid business pace and charge among the lowest rates in the country, even internationally. So, the state cannot now miss what it has never enjoyed in the first place.

All this is, of course, not out of any lack of desire or effort to go big for the tourist dollar. The state government has enthusiastically spent generous sums every year for decades to try to draw tourists to the state’s shores. It is equally enthusiastic in supporting special events — conventions, cultural and music festivals and sports activities — in hopes of attracting more outsiders to come visit.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, China was the irresistible new El Dorado to go in search of tourists. The many flights from Chinese cities into Kota Kinabalu bringing in bus-loads of tourists are an envy for Sarawak.

In fact, the Sarawak government and travel-industry players had been busy putting together a flight from Hainan into Kuching before the health scare put paid to the plan, at least temporarily. Earlier, negotiations were initiated between the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), which owns a string of hotels and resorts, and Chinese travel-industry players. Those, too, have gotten nowhere.

Despite all these, it can be fairly assumed that the numbers the state still regularly claims for real tourist arrivals each year will not add up if they were independently audited.

Still, the state seems undeterred. It is making another stab at considering collaborating with Singapore to make the city-state a hub for tourists into Sarawak. It is also collaborating with Brunei to make the sultanate another hub for those elusive tourists.

Somehow, all these top-down tourism initiatives may never prosper no matter how many times they are tried without an honest assessment made to ascertain why the desired real tourist numbers are not forthcoming or why the state isn’t hitting the jackpot as a tourist destination.

The only really reliable tourists into Sarawak are those from across the border in West Kalimantan for whom Kuching’s private hospitals have been a consistent drawcard. Domestic tourists from the peninsula are the only other sizeable and dependable group.

Further afield, perhaps the strategy ought to be to let industry players take the lead. The state government should perhaps consider drawing up plans to attract foreign investors to either buy over government-owned tourist attractions or to provide incentives and designated areas for such investors to build new tourist enclaves.

With the expected completion in a few years of the Pan Borneo Highway (PBH), potential sites for such enclaves should be identified. One strong possibility is Telok Melano at the western-most tip of the state, already accessible following the completion of the stretch of the PBH from there to Kuching.

One likely weakness of the state’s tourism push is relying on state-linked entities such as SEDC to spearhead it. If ever there is truth to the axiom that there’s no business for government to be in business, it seems to apply in Sarawak’s tourism-related business.

The SEDC-owned tourism properties have not been making the expected returns for over 30 years! They are now crying out for massive facelifts, which only fresh injections of capital from either the state or new investors can bring about. It will be unconscionable if the state were to dump in significant fresh capital given the business record of these properties.

Only proven tourism-industry players — either local or foreign — can do the trick of turning around Sarawak tourism. – NST