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Selling Sabah to the East Europeans
Published on: Sunday, March 24, 2024
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Lai with Munis, Liew, Bangkuai and Jimit.
THIS year marks the 55th anniversary of the Malaysian-Hungary Diplomatic Relations, established in 1969. Leonard Alaza (LA) recently spoke with Ambassador of Malaysia to Hungary, Francisco Munis (FM), about Malaysian-Hungarian ties with focus on the tourism industry. 

LA: What is the state of tourism exchange between Malaysia and Hungary in particular Sabah?

FM: If we look at the Immigration Statistics, between 2017 and 2023, there were only 42,516 Hungarian entries into the country. The highest recorded was during the pre-Covid years of 2017-2019 at 28,401 and between 2020 and 2023 at 14,115, the pro-rate average of 6,073 Hungarian entries to Malaysia per year.

The average of 6,000 plus a year is still a good number and can be further increased. I think most Hungarian visitors went to the peninsula and a number to Sarawak. 

Various factors were cited to justify the reason on why we cannot get more Hungarian or even eastern European tourists to Malaysia.

Aspects such as the lack of air connectivity, expensive airfare, geographically distant, less attractive destination and so on that gave the impression that the region is non-lucrative for tourism market. However, comparing the number of entries by Hungarian visitors in some other Asean countries, such factors can be debated.

For Sabah, I would say it was rather due to the lack of promotion to make Sabah visible in the eastern European region.

LA: It was reported that the Sabah Tourism Board (STB) has recently visited Budapest to undertake a Tourism Promotion Mission (TPM). Can you elaborate further on the STB’s TPM there?

FM: The STB’s TPM in Budapest was a right move. I was informed that the STB’s TPM in Budapest was the first to be held in the eastern European region. I must commend the STB for taking the effort to seriously look into this untapped region, as their potential market. The CEO of STB, Julinus Jeffrey Jimit has taken the right step to propose for expanding the potential of Sabah’s tourism market.

In times of economic competition and challenges, Sabah cannot sit still and wait for tourists to come, let alone to leave potential market remain untapped.

Initially, when I was informed about the possibility of the STB taking the opportunity of their presence in Europe to undertake a product presentation in Budapest, right after their ITB Berlin Convention 2024 participation, my thought was that the product presentation would be a normal sales meeting with local travel agencies. 

It turned out to be a serious mission dubbed the STB TPM, led by the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment herself, Datuk Christina Liew, with senior officers accompanying.

The Minister, Assistant Minister and Chairman of the STB, the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary and the CEO of the STB, were all actively involved in all engagement meetings. That shows how serious they are in looking into the potential of their new market.

LA: Earlier you mentioned that cited factors constraining the effort to increase the number of eastern European visitors to Malaysia were debatable and that promotion effort would be the right resolve. How then can we change the perception that the eastern European tourism market is non-lucrative? Can you elaborate further?

FM: Well, such cited factors were derived from unfounded opinions. Looking into the region as non-lucrative due to the cited factors is tenuous. It is just not right to assume for example, Austria a country categorised as belonging to western Europe, as a potential market but not its immediate neighbour Hungary, a country categorized as belonging to the eastern region. We have to look into the dynamics of a region, in order to understand its market.

There must be some strengths on Sabah’s part that it can apply to tap and turn the region into a lucrative market. 

Such perception seems unsubstantiated, too. Despite the cited factors, 31 Hungarian travel agencies turned up at the STB’s TPM to see what Sabah has to offer to their clients.

It was also discovered that many of the participating travel agencies have already created packages to our neighbouring countries Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines and hundreds of thousands of Hungarians flocking into those countries.

How Sabah can be part of it must be looked into. The eastern European tourists were already present in our region, think about it … did these tourists overlook Sabah?

The Hungarian Statistics Office reported an increase of Hungarians taking outbound trips with 18 million trips registered in the year 2022 and spending about four billion euros.

About three million of the trips were to the Asian region. Can we not get a few more thousand trips by Hungarians out of the three million? Now think about that. We are not even talking about the region.

In my engagement with the Association of Hungarian Travel Agents, I was informed that as compared to other Asean countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, Malaysia is not as active as their neighbouring countries in promoting tourism in the eastern European region.

Even China, Japan and Korea were actively promoting tourism in Budapest to the extent of establishing direct or chartered flights to Budapest to cater for both inbound and outbound visitors to their respective countries. It is puzzling to think about why other Asian countries are looking at the region as lucrative.

I have heard about Hungarian tourists transiting at KLIA for onward flights to enjoy Bali. I am sure many travellers from the eastern European region will have to take two or more transits to reach Bali or other tourism destinations in our region. Can we not work out the math?

Again, think about that … all these cited factors are resolvable issues. Not taking any effort to market and promote is the bigger issue.

LA: Following the STB’s TPM, how can we promote Sabah as a destination for Hungarians and eastern Europeans?

FM: As said earlier, these eastern European tourists are already present in our region. Sabah needs to smartly capitalise on its strengths to attract them. The STB Chairman, Datuk Joniston Bangkuai, relayed to me that Sabah is actually truly Borneo. That is an example of a strength. 

The 90 days visa free for Hungarian to stay in Malaysia for tourism purposes should be capitalised, too, in promotion strategy. Again, think about it, how many countries in our region offers a 90-day visa free to Hungarians for tourism purposes?  

The affordability factor taking advantage of the currently weaker ringgit, should also be looked into by re-examining existing tourism products and packages and how it can be developed further, making it more attractive and worthy of the cost, to lure the eastern European market and its tourists. 

It would be good too, if the travel agencies met during the STB’s TPM be continuously updated, engaged and incentivised to promote and add Sabah into their travel packages to our region. The STB may want to consider appointing competitive travel agents in highly populated eastern European capitals to act as their marketing agents. 



'Aspects such as the lack of air connectivity, expensive airfare, geographically distant, less attractive destination and so on that gave the impression 

that the region is non-lucrative for tourism market.' – Munis 


Further, the STB may also want to consider experimenting on trial basis, appointing a full-time local marketing personnel who speaks the language of tourism and be based in Budapest for example, to go around the eastern European countries to sell and promote what Sabah has to offer.

Well, if cost effective budgeting is not a restraint and such ideas has not been explored yet.

The Ministry and the STB are the regulators, policy implementors, promoters and marketers of Sabah’s tourism industry. In regulating the industry, formulating policies and devising promotional strategies, it is best to include the interest of other players and stakeholders particularly the tourism operators, whom are widely private sector.

Complementing the efforts to tap potential market and promote Sabah, empowering the operators by incentivizing them to follow up would help accelerate and open up wider prospects.

It would be an opportunity for future STB TPM to include Sabah’s tourism operators to also present and talk about their establishments and discuss with the travel agencies in the eastern European region on how they can work out strategize packages.

LA: In what areas of tourism promotion can Sabah collaborate with Hungary and how can it benefit Sabah?

FM: I am actually very pleased that the STB while in Hungary, was not only looking into presenting a product to travel agencies but also went further up in their marketing and promotion strategies.

The STB’s TPM took an extended approach, beyond the practice of solely meeting travel agencies. The STB’s TPM also employed tourism diplomacy and engaged the various tourism players and stakeholders in Budapest to promote Sabah. 

The STB engaged with the Budapest City Council (BCC) to gauge and learn from the latter’s successful promotion of Budapest, as a city of tourism. The STB’s presentation on Sabah had impressed the BCC. As a result of their engagement, the BCC has shown high interest to collaborate with Sabah to mutually promote sports and cultural exchanges by utilising existing attractions such as the International Budapest Marathon to be paired with the Borneo Marathon or Kinabalu Climbathon and the International Budapest Sziget Fest to be potentially paired with the Sabah Fest. 

Such collaboration will help promote sports and cultural tourism and generate potential tourists to Sabah to the mutual benefit of both sides. Capitalising on yearly international events held in Budapest, that are attended by hundreds of thousands of people from neighbouring and other countries, as an extended promotion platform is a worthy form of capacity building.

The idea was to utilize the internationally popular touristic City of Budapest, as an advertising stage and a gateway to promote Sabah’s tourism visibility in the eastern European region. 

Further, the STB also engaged and exchanged views with the National Tourism Authority of Hungary on the way forward to promote tourism for the mutual benefit of both sides. Again, they left with encouraging impression and the prospect of engaging in tourism promotion collaboration. 

Rural tourism is a big industry in Hungary and the surrounding countries. The STB’s TPM opportune engagement with the Rural Tourism and Agrotourism Federation of Hungary, discovered that Sabah’s rural tourism model with an element of community-based tourism, was more advanced than that of the Hungarian model. I am glad that Joniston saw the opportunity to moot collaboration between the Hungarian Rural Tourism and Agrotourism Federation and the Sabah’s Rural Tourism Federation.

Sabah can through Hungary as the stage, advertise its successful rural tourism model to also promote Sabah’s visibility in the long term. Sabah should not just leave its successes in rural tourism remaining as it is, but should consider internationalising it to promote further visibility of Sabah’s tourism industry.

The STB’s TPM also engaged the local Hungarian media, treating them as Friends of Sabah with the Minister, Assistant Minister, Permanent Secretary and the CEO of Sabah Tourism Board all personally entertaining, engaging and sharing thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Engagement with the media was focused on targeted topics and not merely distributing press release to be shared among the media to report about who was who and what product in the TPM. Continuous engagement with the local media with strategized focus will aid to further visibility.

LA: Finally, anything else you want to say and can you also comment on Sabah’s tourism brand tag of Feel Sabah, North Borneo?

FM: Personally, I would like to express on my behalf and on behalf of the Embassy of Malaysia in Budapest for the excellent inter-agencies’ collaboration, as shown by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah and the Sabah Tourism Board to the Embassy.

The STB’s assurances for further facilitation in terms of tourism promotion materials provision for use by the Embassy in its extended role to promote tourism in advancing further Malaysia’s economic interest is very much desired. 

The STB’s optimism during the TPM in an unknown territory of the eastern European region has now opened the door for a new tourism market for Sabah. 

Again, the keywords of visibility through advertising stage. Simply, I would suggest for example, for the STB to extend some form of recognition to interested travel agents that participated in their TPM in Budapest, by perhaps providing to them the branding logo for display at their establishment’s door for their clients to see with an additional line stating that the travel agency is a Friend of Sabah.

Visible enough for public passers-by to also see. Outside of Malaysia, the STB should get the branding logo publicly visible. Just like the restaurants that display food delivery and Michelin Stars logos.

… and, of course, I found it not only entertaining but also heartening, when we were made to cheer Feel Sabah, North Borneo! in every group photo taken after each engagement.  

Thumbs up to Liew, Joniston, Josie Lai and Julinus Jeffery Jimit and their staff for the successful TPM in Budapest Hungary. I regard the STB’s first ever TPM in the eastern European region and particularly in Budapest, as one of our productive activities on the occasion of the 55th Anniversary of Malaysia-Hungary Diplomatic Relations.    

Francisco Munis is a native Sabahan career diplomat. He served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia and at Malaysian Diplomatic Missions in Mexico, China, Russia and now in Hungary. He is also the Ambassador of Malaysia concurrently accredited to Slovenia and North Macedonia



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