Sarawak must woo more Chinese tourists

MALAYSIA - On a recent trip to Kota Kinabalu, this writer could not help noticing what a vibrant tourism boom the Sabah capital continues to enjoy.

From casual asking around, it appears the city and the state generally did not miss a beat as far as tourism goes despite the armed clashes several months earlier in Lahad Datu between the our security forces and gunmen from Sulu in the Philippines.

Hotels of all categories in Kota Kinabalu appear busier, putting out the "full" rather than "vacancy" signs. And there are hotels galore, from the swankiest 5-star international brands to the humblest lodges.

The elegant boutique establishment, the Jesselton Hotel, first allowed this writer a late check-out time but then almost immediately called to profusely apologise that workmen were in fact at the ready and waiting for my room to be cleared as it was slated for a makeover being undertaken almost room by room.

With several flights a day connecting Kota Kinabalu to cities in southern China, the city is noticeably catching a slice of the ever expanding Chinese middle class just starting to catch the travel bug. According to my taxi driver, the Chinese horde descends to savour the city's sun and sea rather than to ascend Mount Kinabalu.

Whatever, the city's array of fine Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants and local seafood establishments are all doing a roaring trade, with lunch and dinner crowds more commonly found in metropolitan cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei or Manila.

Geography has kindly blessed Kota Kinabalu with rugged mountains, fine beaches, offshore islands and a proximity to all the aforementioned cities, such that it has become a natural air hub for our national airlines beyond Kuala Lumpur.

And all the planes disgorging passengers each day mean no shortage of check-ins into the city's hotels.

All this is such a contrast to Kuching, on the other end of Borneo. Sarawak Tourism Minister Datuk Amar Abang Johari Tun Openg was just recently in Singapore, talking up interest by the republic's Silkair to expand the airline's existing services into the Sarawak capital.

The minister was previously talking to Malaysia Airlines to expand the rather limited network of direct flights from Kuching to regional cities.

The one obvious airline that Abang Johari has not apparently been seen talking to is AirAsia, even when the airline's chief executive was recently in Kuching.

The official Sarawak cold shoulder to the region's best-known low-cost airline is mystifying and inexplicable given that one would expect a state with Sarawak's limited direct air links to not be picky about which airline the state wants to do business with.

And AirAsia has not been exactly shy in publicising the fact that Sabah actually provides better support than Sarawak to the airline in terms of tangible help to promote the respective states as an AirAsia destination.

Which may partly explain why the airline is even keener to help put Kota Kinabalu on the regional tourism map when Sabah arguably has less of a pressing need compared with Sarawak to be doing AirAsia such favours.

Perhaps the Sarawak minister thinks AirAsia passengers are more likely to be "commuters" rather than tourists. He cannot be more wrong.

Chinese tourists, for example, may likely scrimp on air travel and hotels but are more likely to splurge on other things when they travel, such as on shopping and meals. AirAsia, therefore, may be the airline of choice for that most sought-after of today's tourists: Chinese ones.

The most ordinary things that Sarawakians take for granted, such as clean streets and wide, open green spaces, in their expansive cities may be just what attract Chinese tourists from their own over-crowded cities.

The deserted beaches and resorts of Damai near Kuching may be just the antidote for Chinese travellers seeking some peace and quiet from the frenetic pace of their lives back home.

AirAsia says it is open to working more closely and actively with Sarawak to open more routes into the state. The ball is clearly in the court of the Sarawak government.

It is time the state think up a strategy to tap a share of the ever growing Chinese outbound travel market just like what everybody else is doing.

AirAsia will be the most logical airline partner for the state in going the increasingly obvious China route for tourists.