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Can Sabah stay ahead of tourism curve?
Published on: Sunday, July 21, 2019
By: Datuk John Lo


INDONESIAN President Jokowi announced the establishment of Special Economic Zones in Eastern part of Indonesia, including East Kalimantan/Sulawesi on 2 April 2019. This announcement by Jokowi should be taken in context with his efforts to upgrade and construct 15 new airports, many of which are in Kalimantan/Sulawesi. 

This is a serious a wake-up call for Sabah’s tourism decision makers. Please refer to these internet news items.

https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3004198/indonesia-eyes-us77-billion-investment-three-new-special

https://www.indonesia.travel/kr/en/trip-ideas/15-new-airport-s-welcoming-you-to-the-spectacular-wonder-s-of-indonesia

At the core of his drive for economic development, Jokowi is anchoring on tourism, especially marine/resort tourism on beach land and coastal areas which will attract the greatest number of high-end tourists. Great emphasis is also on marina development which is very clever for there is a huge facility vacuum between HK, South Korea, particularly China whose yacht ownership is the fastest growing in the world and southwards from Philippines, Sabah right down Kalimantan/Sulawesi. 

I am told by a marina developer friend in HK that Jokowi’s announcement has generated substantial interests for marina development in view of the many offers of attractive incentives for investors. 

Sabah has a distinct advantage over both Philippines and Indonesia for the former suffers from annual typhons/hurricanes and the latter earthquakes/tsunami. Notwithstanding these, Jokowi’s initiatives seem to be succeeding in attracting interest in beach resorts and marina development. Jokowi has set to achieve attracting investment of US$7.73 [more than RM30 billion] and creation of 120,000 jobs.

No doubt Sabah has achieved envious tourism progress in last 30 years. The question is – How are we positioning Sabah to keep up with competition in the next 30 years. Policy decision makers should address this question with due urgency and seriousness as tourism is the largest employment generator and provides widest investment opportunities for Sabahans.

While Jokowi is pushing for beach/coastal tourism development for East Kalimantan/Sulawesi, some diehards in Sabah are opposing TAED without giving alternative solutions for TAED or economic development. I stand corrected, neither is there a plan from policy decision makers to take tourism to the next several levels so that Sabah can compete in the future.

Right now, Sabah is enjoying unchallenged superiority in tourism and direct air links in Borneo. With the rapid airport development in Kalimantan/ Sulawesi and Sabah’s over confidence, we will soon see planes carrying tourists overflying Sabah to Kalimantan/Sulawesi in the near future. 

Reason is simple. Kalimantan/Sulawesi will be much cheaper in land cost and construction cost for resorts, natural attractions a lot more than Sabah. No way Sabah can compete in sea food – in price, quality and variety. Added to these are the attractive incentives and friendly policies which investors don’t get in Sabah.

My message which I hope will not cause offence is simply this. Sabah has failed to sufficiently develop high-end tourism, failed to develop our most beaches/coastal areas for tourism, our hardware including some so called 5-star hotels, are aged/ tired looking, our tourism products are out dated and saturated in capacity. Sabah’s software, especially human resource has not matched with tourism expansion.

Added to all these is the lack of co-ordination by authorities that have direct and indirect impacts on tourism. The recent fish bomb that has killed two Chinese tourists and a dive master is a succinct example. Fish bombing has been around for far too long with no end in sight. We will push this and other kidnap incidents aside hoping they will go away.

Staying on top in tourism in this region will take a lot more than present efforts by Sabah. We must think out of the box and adopt a policy of constant renewal and updating to face off competition. 

For example, how would Sabah handle an additional one million high-end tourists in addition to our normal growth? How and where would we house them? What sort of hotels/accommodation Sabah can provide for them? Do we have the software to cater for “the rich and famous”? Will we have marinas for super yachts? Will there be sufficient apron parking for their private jets? Where to get promotions funds? How to attract investments to fund all these? 

So many questions but so few answers. Additional one million high value tourists is achievable if we can set our mind to it, backed up by a strong political will. 

If we succeed in expanding tourism and beat off competition from Jokowi’s initiatives, what will it mean for ordinary Sabahans and their families? How can we craft policies so that there will be better jobs, improved standard of living and better business opportunities for Sabahans?

Will Sabahans own most of the tourism assets or will it be like the oil palm industry which is more than 90pc non-Sabahan owned? What policies will Sabah government introduce to safeguard and promote tourism asset ownership by Sabahans? Will the government consider lowering the present expensive conversion land premium for tourism development? Lowering the land premium charge for 10 acres or less will facilitate many Sabahans to invest in tourism products and boutique resorts.

The answers to all the above and many other questions can only come from a visionary tourism plan for the next 30 years. Do we have a plan? If yes, please share for the benefits of all Sabahans. If none, let’s start one soonest.





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