The resurgence of Sabah’s tourism industry


Tourists are flocking back to Sabah to see experience its wondrous beauty (photo credit: Borneo Divers and Sea Sports).Tourists are flocking back to Sabah to see experience its wondrous beauty (photo credit: Borneo Divers and Sea Sports).

By Carolyn Hong

Tourists tend to spook at the first sign of trouble. Thus, when Sabah suffered serious damage to its image as an island paradise in March, there was fear that its key industry of tourism would suffer.

It did. Televised images of Malaysia’s military battling Sulu gunmen who landed on its eastern shores to claim Sabah for the defunct Sulu Sultanate scared off visitors for a few weeks.

But four months later, Sabah is back on its feet. It is seeing record arrivals as its swift action during the crisis defused fears and, as a bonus, the publicity also brought international focus to its natural beauty. In the first five months of the year, arrivals rose 9.6 per cent from 1.1 million to 1.2 million compared to the year before.

Sabah's Tourism MinisterThis was much to the relief of Sabah’s Tourism Minister Masidi Manjun (pic) who worked around the clock to cushion the impact on tourism which is the third largest industry in the state.

Tourism is not just a key part of Sabah’s economy. It also provides plenty of jobs for the local people. It is one of the state’s success stories in helping to raise income levels. Sabah was once Malaysia’s poorest but has reportedly risen out of the last place.

Unlike Sabah’s two biggest industries, agriculture and manufacturing which employ mostly foreigners, eight out of 10 tourism workers are locals.

“Tourism is the future of Sabah,” said Datuk Masidi. “Agriculture is still the number one industry but 80 per cent of its workers are foreigners. It’s the reverse in tourism.”

He said that, when the gunmen landed in Sabah, there was an immediate drop in visitors especially to the famed dive islands of Sipadan and Mabul despite the military zone being a long way away. These islands, famed for their corals, marine life and aquamarine waters, are a key Sabah attraction.

Several countries had also issued travel advisories against travelling to Sabah, causing serious harm as insurance agencies would not provide travel insurance.

Datuk Masidi attributes the swift recovery to Sabah’s quick and transparent response. As soon as the crisis hit, the government and industry formed a task force to take the unprecedented step of providing daily updates to travel agencies at home and abroad. It did not gloss over the incident, with every casualty and injury reported frankly.

“We didn’t hide anything, and it paid off as people trusted our reports. We were hurt by the travel advisories but the impact wore off after a while,” he said.

Over 60 people were killed in the fighting that lasted a few days. All restrictions have now been lifted.

Datuk Masidi said that they had also reached out on social media, and invited bloggers and media from abroad to see the situation for themselves. The resorts and tourists helped by posting photos and updates on social media that gave the side of the story ignored by news reports which focused on the military operations.

Theresa Tham, chief operating officer of Borneo Divers and Sea Sports, one of Sabah’s biggest dive operators, said swift action and utmost transparency were the two factors that kept things afloat in the crisis.

Their resort had cancellations in the first two weeks but has bounced back to a record-high booking of 95 per cent last month in July. Perhaps, the publicity over the incursions helped, she joked.

Sabah receives about three million visitors a year, about two-thirds of whom are domestic tourists. Of its foreign arrivals, China has been the fastest growing – its numbers had soared 77 per cent from 71,000 last year to 126,000this year.

Diana Kruger, 40, from Germany, who was holidaying in Semporna in mid-July, said that she had actually postponed her holiday from May as she was advised not to go, and was told that there were many soldiers there.

“So I decided to delay my holiday until now,” she said. “I think many Europeans would not have heard of the Lahad Datu attack but they would have listened to their government warnings.”

That was then. Today, the resurgence of Sabah’s tourism industry continues….

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Tomorrow: How Sabahans are turning their homes into money spinners

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