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Don’t blame the tour guides, revamp sector
Published on: Sunday, July 30, 2017

By Datuk John Lo
Under Datuk Musa’s Halajutu, tourism has grown incessantly and impressively the last 10 years, from a budding industry to a multi-billion Ringgit major business for thousands of Sabahans.

Plans are already afoot by Musa for tourism to take on a higher profile and greater role in Sabah’s economy.

In fact, some gamechanger projects are already being implemented, like the SICC and Tanjong Aru Eco Project. That tourism has been a huge success in Sabah is an unchallengeable fact. Tourism is a very attractive industry to have. It can generate many multipliers, including jobs, investment and revenue. It is also a hard task master to manage at the macro and micro level, being very susceptible to political, economic changes and natural disasters within our borders and in other countries. It needs constant monitoring and policy tweaking by the authorities and adaptation by all the stakeholders.

Some questions that need to be asked, with the greatest respect to all concerned, if Sabah is to spiral up to the next several levels in tourism in the near future. Some of these questions need urgent answers in view of the completion of SICC by the end of 2018.

Questions like – Have we become the victims of this unprecedented success? Have we been lured into a comfort zone and unconsciously let things spin out of control? Do we have the right tourism industry leaders to lead in the context of Musa’s vision in the next 10 years? Do we need a comprehensive action plan for housekeeping or “back of the house” for tourism? To cater for future growth, do we need to have a high-powered government/private sector committee to co-ordinate, regulate tourism without strangling it’s neck.

Again, with due respect to all concerned, there have been some troubling symptomatic events that indicate the prevailing industry model is slowing getting out of sync. There have been a few drownings, the most dramatic of which was the boat going to Magellan island, accidents here and there, quality and speed of search and rescue following the first ever earthquake, poor services and now the tour guides have deemed it fit to hold a mini demonstration at KKIA. This must be the first ever of its kind in Malaysia.

Official reactions were fast in coming on this latest tour guide incident, most of which said that the tour guides should not have done it. These comments do not solve the fundamental issues. I can say with high degree of certainty that unlicensed foreign guides and other problems have existed for a long time.

The authorities must have a tourism model in which there is a balance of interest for all stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the authorities have overfocused attention to big numbers of arrivals, that we are doing well, etc.

Little attention for housekeeping and scant resources for research and development, which are equally important as promotion for the long-term prosperity of the industry.

Unlicensed foreign tour guides in Sabah and Malaysia have been around for a long time.

South Korean tour companies were the first culprits. They were tolerated because there were not enough Korean speaking guides in the beginning.

And now we have the Chinese doing it on a much larger scale. They hurt our tour guides’ “rice bowls” more because the number of Chinese tourist arrivals is by far the biggest and also potentially, the largest source of income for Sabah tour guides.

There is no lack of Chinese speaking Sabah tour guides. Something must be fundamentally wrong for foreign tour companies to fly in their Chinese tour guides, feed them, give them hotel rooms, etc.

Surely, bringing their own tour guides must cost more. The authorities must establish the answer for this.

Some South Korean tour companies have been hiring illegal guides and unlicensed tour buses.

This practice is more than 10 years old. Not difficult to detect them. One can see them at KKIA and hotel fronts.

Many Koreans are working in KK. They can be seen in Wisma Sabah and Wisma Merdeka.

How many have work permits? Why are there so many? Why are they so blatant?

Use of illegal tour guides and/unlicensed buses will void any travel insurance of the tourists.

The sad part is that the tourists [who are our bread and butter] are always the innocent victims.

The problem will crop up when there is an accident or death.

Unlike western and Japanese tour companies, the South Koreans and I am quite certain the Chinese will do it too in time, that is they will establish their own businesses to cater for the tourists they bring in.

The South Koreans already have their own shops, restaurants, transport companies, their own tour companies, even golf sets and shoes for rental. The South Koreans have already done it in Manila and Jakarta.

The bottom line is – failure to prevent this from happening in Sabah will result in little economic benefits trickling down to locals. This defeats the purpose of tourism. The authorities must look into this aspect.

The demonstration by some 40 Sabah tour guides should not be condemned for the authorities have ignored to act for a long time. Theirs is an act of frustration, nobody to turn to, and should now serve as an eyeopener.

Best prevention against a repeat is communication before the situation blows up.

Once blown up, the blame game will start. Good if the authorities can undertake a comprehensive review on our current tourism business model, make adjustments to adopt to prevailing and future trends.

Many aspects of tourism come to mind when talking about adjustments, reviews for taking this industry to higher level. I will deal with some of them.

Need for high level co-ordination committee: As sure as tomorrow’s sunrise, Sabah will need tourism for prosperity as Musa has committed much attention and funds for it in his vision. The future of tourism industry, to be fair, must have the attention of more than the Federal and State Tourism Ministries.

It cannot do without the authorities of transport, aviation, safety, security, health, local government, airports, airlines and tourism NGOs working in close collaboration. Above all, we need the local population to be the welcoming hosts.

KKIA needs a major revamp: Putting it bluntly, KKIA is very poor welcoming and “good bye” establishment for tourists and travellers. Too long to list all the problems. Suffice to say that

[a] toilets are seldom clean and dry. Tawau airport has better ones.

[b] PA announcements are overtly loud and the English is atrocious. The mandarin announcer on 21 July must be talking “double Dutch”. Obviously, the personnel have no training.

[c] check in area for Air Asia is like a “battle ground”.

[d] facilities like chairs, electrical outlets for charging phones and computers are as rare as blue diamonds.

[e] Getting through to Wifi is like striking a lottery. No place for travellers to work on their computers. [f] The “green lane” has not been used for a very long time. Every traveller, old and young alike, is made to scan their luggage. Green lane is widely used in all major airports including KLIA.

[g] Departing passengers are being greatly inconvenienced because MAB and other authorities take up space nearest to the trollies and entrances.

[h] traffic at peak period, especially in the evening, is chaotic.

[i] Pretty obvious that Sabah needs another terminal very soon.

Food prices are expensive in KK: Compared with equivalent destinations like Bali, Athens, Barcelona.

We need to look into this.

IT, Wifi, Unifi: More than anything else, these will determine and define Sabah’s tourism future as the new age travellers are already highly internet connected. These facilities are expected. The present quality and reliability of our internet are stone age. In many tourist destinations, good and FREE internet connections are already available in restaurants and coffee shops. KKIA’s internet access is very poor. Internet payment is being used from hotels to vegetable sellers in China. Credit cards are out of date. The Chinese are becoming a cashless country faster than Americans.

Internet promotion, sales and marketing: 40pc of retail in China is done on line. Retail trade in malls is dying.

Jack Ma of Ali Baba has become the richest Chinese through internet marketing. We need to have a serious look of using the internet more extensively to upgrade promotion, sales and marketing by all stake players Changing market behaviour: Sabah has seen many market changes – from European, Australians, to now Chinese and domestic. Their tastes and demands also change. Today, Chinese tourists arrive in droves, tomorrow they may dwindle or will arrive in greater numbers, depending on how we can meet their expectations.

We have adjusted well in the past. Can we do it in future?

Exploitations by Foreign Tour Companies: Believe me, these companies do and will exploit if we let them and our regulatory and enforcement are weak – like overloading boats or underpaying our tour guides or bringing their own guides.

In many countries, the “punishment” consequences for the boat company and boat men would be very severe.

Using unofficial or illegal jetty is simply out of the question. We also must remember that many of our tour guides have been and are being squeezed to the bones by these companies too. The authorities must know where, when and how to protect the interest of our own people so that they will not be short-changed.

Singapore’s tourism model is a good example to emulate.

Professional proficiency: Not being critical here. Admittedly, there are many good people in tourism.

The question is – are they enough? The future tourism will need many more good people with different and new skills in view of the completion of SICC, more new hotels and the major tourism destination – Tanjong Aru Eco Project Do we have them and in sufficient numbers?

Bench markings against best in Asean: These must be done consistently for they will tell us if we are competitive in the markets that we want.

We all boast about the billions of tourism receipts each year. How is this compared with Bali, Singapore and other tourism competitors?

Can we realign our promotion efforts to enhance tourism receipts per tourist to be on par with other better-known destinations?

How do our service levels measure up? Do we know? We must endeavour to achieve higher tourism receipts per tourist for the real tourism objective is to provide opportunities for our people to earn a decent, good living through tourism.

All the tourism stakeholders and players owe it to Musa to assist him in fulfilling his tourism vision.

He has done his best – he has allocated the budget, provide the hardware and investment initiatives.

Time for the private sector stakeholders to adopt a more proactive and aggressive role for future tourism.

In so doing, the bottom line is simply this – they are actually helping themselves. I may be wrong, but my perception is that it is about time for us to conduct a critical and comprehensive review on all areas of tourism and produce an improved model that can cater for the future, for higher value tourists coming to our shores.

We must continue to innovate, reinvent our tourism industry so that we can maintain our top position in Borneo.

Both Singapore and Thailand have done this exercise systematically many times in the last 20 years.

When was the last time we have consciously and deliberately done it?

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