Nature’s Lure in the Land Below the Wind

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Notwithstanding the recent headline grabbing news of insurgents from the Philippines into the town of Lahad Datu, the state of Sabah in Malaysia is more famous globally for its natural flora and fauna. This rich natural ecosystem enables it to offer a wide array of ecotourism products ranging from the adventure tourism experiences of Mount Kinabalu, the rainforests of Danum Valley to diving along the atoll of Sipadan island: a choice of being above the clouds, underwater and all else in between in a manner of speaking. The Sabahans are understandably proud of their natural heritage and relish the ability to be able to develop and manage their tourism industry with homegrown resources and talents.

Datuk Masidi Sabah

Currently the tourism industry contributes about 15 % to Sabah’s GDP. The year 2011 saw 2.844 million tourist arrivals into Sabah comprising 65 % domestic and the rest from overseas. According to Datuk Masidi Manjun, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment in Sabah, total tourist arrivals increased slightly to 2.875 million in 2012 despite a drop in domestic arrivals. The promotional activities by the Sabah Tourism Board paid off resulting in higher arrivals from China and Europe, particularly Germany, in 2012 compared to 2011.

Unlike domestic visitors the foreign tourists are lured by the natural heritage of Sabah. On this point Masidi stressed the importance of being able to skillfully manage the delicate balance between nature conservation and commercial enterprise. At the time of the interview (late January), news on the death of 14 pygmy elephants in the forests of Gunung Rara, possibly due to poisoning, was making headlines around the world.

Stressing that his ministry is ready to do everything necessary to establish the cause of death and take action to the fullest extent of the law, Masidi also urged for international cooperation where the protection of endangered species is involved. He is sensitive to the need to manage the incident carefully lest the anti -palm oil lobby groups decide to call for tourists to boycott Malaysia/Sabah for perceived rampant deforestation at the expense of endangered wildlife. Human-wildlife conflict is an emotive issue that can have economic ramifications depending on how it is managed on the ground as well as in the media.

More than 90 % of tourist arrivals into Sabah come by air hence air connectivity is crucial to the growth of tourism especially so since the Ministry has set a goal of at least 3 million tourists during Visit Malaysia Year 2014. Sabah is looking forward to more tourist arrivals from East Asia as more direct international flights are in the offing. There are now 20 direct flights a week between Hong Kong and Kota Kinabalu. These are in addition to the direct flights from Cebu and Davao as well as Perth and Tokyo. Air connectivity can be expected to improve further with the plan by MASwings to develop new routes within the BIMP-East Asia Growth Area (EAGA) covering parts of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The flights from Tokyo, Hong Kong and Australia in particular, tend to attract middle to high end visitors seduced by Sabah’s natural beauty and ecosystem. The Chinese have come to appreciate diving while Sabah’s natural assets tend to attract nature-loving Japanese. But serving this market segment comes with its own challenges.

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As K.L Tan, Director of Borneo Trails and Chairman of the Sabah MATTA Chapter explains, Japanese tourists expect high standards and quality service such as 5-star resorts, guides fluent in Japanese and punctuality. Their interest in a particular activity, such as bird watching and analyzing flora and fauna, can draw them to spend most of their holiday doing exclusively that.

Masidi, who has close rapport with travel industry players in his state, agrees that better training opportunities have to be provided to players within the tourism industry for them to better understand the needs of the well-heeled and well-travelled. Related to this Tan suggests that financial incentives could be extended to players like himself in order to train larger numbers of tour guides in selected languages or in specialized topics related to the local ecosystem.

According to Tan, through the MATTA Sabah chapter, a number of issues have been raised requiring decisions and/or funding from the Federal Government:

  1. Issue tourism industry licenses only to players who meet certain pre-defined criteria in order to ensure high service standards and healthy competition rather than uncontrolled price undercutting which is unsustainable over the long term. Consolidation may be the answer.
  2. Ensure that wholly foreign-owned travel and tour operators who are permitted to set up operations in Sabah (and elsewhere) are those who offer specialized services which locals cannot offer.
  3. Reduce or remove import permits for luxury vehicles that can be used specifically for high spending tourists.
  4. Reduce to reasonable levels the insurance premiums for hire and drive permits as the risk exposure is minimal compared to public transport by express busses and the like.
  5. Better roads to destinations such as Klias and Kudat, not forgetting also rest stops like those provided by PLUS.
  6. Build more 5 star beach resorts to give the high spending tourists better choice.
  7. Maintain general cleanliness and mitigate sources of pollution.

Notwithstanding these challenges Tan credits the support from the Ministry of Tourism at both the state and federal levels, as well as the resilience and determination of the local tour operators for the successes achieved thus far. As a Director of Borneo Trails, Tan has seen its revenue grow by about 10 % in 2012 compared to the year before and inbound foreign travelers make up to 50 % of Borneo Trails’ inbound total. He urges the authorities to listen to industry players so that mistakes, if any, can be corrected and suggests that Pemandu labs should not be only mode of communication for this.

The tragic death of the 14 pygmy elephants symbolises the challenges of managing an ecosystem in the face of modern development, but Sabah must be prepared to face them as there is much at stake ecologically and economically. As poignantly highlighted by Masidi, all Sabahans are entrusted to care for the state’s natural heritage, and if it takes a heart wrenching photo of a baby pygmy elephant trying to wake up its dead mother to bring home the weight of their responsibility, so be it.

A lawyer by training, Shahjanaz Kamaruddin is taking a sabbatical from a listed company in the hospitality sector.

Photo User: Flickr Sarolazmi

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