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Cheap China internet purchases and Sabah cowboy boat operators to blame
Published on: Friday, February 03, 2017

Kota Kinabalu: Dirt cheap optional tours sold on the internet (Tau Bau) in China which require "cowboy boat operators" in Sabah willing to deliver these tours is behind the Mengalum tragedy, local tour agents say.

They said the situation was serious but only became public notice following last Saturday's Catamaran tragedy in which three people died and six others are still missing from a vessel that carried 32 instead of 12.

They said the relevant quarters in China and Sabah would need to rectify things at both ends to minimise any recurrence.

"This is the crux of the problem – they are selling extremely cheap optional tours," said one agent who spoke on condition of anonymity.

What happens is these Chinese tourists end up in the hands of reckless boat operators in Sabah who cram them into small boats to go across a big sea.

"Price dumping at source country is at least 50pc of the cause and the other 50pc blame falls on Sabah," the agent said.

"If nothing happens everything seems fine and thriving. But one cowboy act too many, something has to give and the whole system is exposed," he said.

"We would charge RM350 per pax with proper boats to go to Mengalum, but they buy it extremely cheap in China at 300 Yuan Renminbi (RM204)," he said.

"So this guy (internet stall owner in China) takes 100 Yuan and will look for any boat owner in Sabah who is willing to do it for 200 Yuan (RM136) per pax," he said.

As fot the cowboy boat operators in Sabah . if one doesn't take the offer, others will and so the seller in China need not worry about transport.


"Cowboy operators are unlike us who abide by many strict rules and regulations, they cram as many as possible.

We can't make money from this because it's far below cost and so we are priced out.

"But for a cowboy boat operator why not because if he can cram 28 people into a small boat, he grosses about RM3,500 per trip and what if he has a few boats going every day, that's good money," the agent said.

"The Chinese guests arrive with ready paid voucher for Mengalum, the seller in China emails a name list direct to the cowboy boat operator who will pick them up at the designated hotel and off they go.

"As far as I know, there are no less than 50 stalls in Tau Bau selling Pulau Mantanani but how many offer Mengalum I don't know," he said.'

"Those who buy these bargain optional tours in China are unsuspecting. They don't know what product they are buying. They think it's above board since it is online booking, they think they are getting proper licensed boats," the agent said.

The truth is the big sea and big waves whipped up by Northeast monsoon winds can scare the pants out of anybody put into tiny boats that are totally unfit for taking tourists out to big seas.

"We have complained before, we sent pictures but nobody took action and now when deaths occur people jump.

"It's very, very scary for anybody when it's big sea, rough sea in those small boats, it's no joke.


"For licensed operators, the first thing is not about business, it's safety. If cowboy operators are happy making just RM30 per head, can they afford to change to new engines when needed. Can they afford to repair their boats?" he asked.

In fact, brand new engines costing RM80,000 each have to be totally written off after just three years, the agent said.

"The reason is heavy usage. When you apply full power to go around the waves, heavy duty takes it out of your engine.

"The sea off Sabah's west coast is famous because it is not sheltered by land, when the Northeast winds come the whole sea is very high, very often big waves coming over everywhere which rock your boat from side to side and there's no stability for small boats" the agent said.

"You can't risk engine breakdown in the middle of the sea. When the big waves come, you have to push the boat more to go through the waves. If the engine is not reliable and it stops, you are in trouble.

For small boats, they capsize," he agent said.

He recalled that last October, a Mantanani school principal and teacher drowned after their boat capsized because the waves were big.

"In fact, many times boats have capsized off Mantanani. Some are reported in the media but some not.

An official from the Chinese Embassy even broke his spine during a rough boat ride last year," the agent noted.


On China's side, they need to clam down on Tau Bau's licensed stalls selling dangerous optional tours at dirt cheap rates and use of unlicensed our operators at the destination.

"On Sabah's side, the Government must be very strict by imposing heavy penalties as well as arresting and jailing cowboy operators," the agent said.

"I don't think the marine police alone can stop them because they can't police the whole sea," he said.

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