Sarawak can chase upper end of tourism market
John Teo 
Limestone pinnacle formations at the Gunong Mulu National Park

Sarawak is almost literally still chasing its own tail as far as the state of its tourism prospects goes. The state is not doing enough to tap the tourism market, especially during the Golden Week holiday season in early October which saw tourists from China fanning out across the globe.                   

The Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF) recently warned that the state stands to lose RM5 mil in direct tourism revenue alone next year because of group travel cancellations following the reduction in flight frequencies into the Gunong Mulu National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site.

“The current flight connectivity by MASwings to Mulu is very poor. The flights used to be available daily but now they are available only four days a week beginning last month. This has impacted groups travelling on the Mulu-Kota Kinabalu route – a major potential source of tourists,” said STF president Philip Yong.

The tourism industry body also complained about group airfares being higher than fares available online, a consequence of the dynamic fare structure policy now common among airlines which STF wants discontinued so as to rein in airfares within Sarawak and between Sarawak and Sabah.

It is not difficult to understand how Sarawak and, in particular, Mulu (one of the state’s most promising eco-tourism products and one where much in terms of tourism-related infrastructure has already been invested over the years) still rely on travel agents to promote the state’s tourism.

Online travel bookings may be a boon for individual travellers but that assumes a destination is already well-established and well-known and that travellers know exactly what they want and how to get it.

Mulu, owing primarily to its isolation (apart from reaching it by air, the only other alternative means of accessing it is a day-long, back-breaking journey by boat), relies heavily on ground handlers organising almost every aspect of travellers’ needs.

The demands of tourism success in Mulu are thus in some ways emblematic of the peculiarities of promoting Sarawak to the international traveller. Accessibility and in particular flight connectivity are almost perennial issues.

In the case of Mulu especially but also overall, the role of MASwings in connecting points within Sarawak and with Sabah comes into the spotlight and the inadequacy of current arrangements comes into sharp relief.

That likely has much to do with the airline’s hybrid function in catering to the needs of the two states’ rural air services which are subsidised by the federal government as well as the overlapping imperative to profitably run flights between the major urban centres of both states.

Muddled missions and goals lead to muddled management and, inevitably, to muddled outcomes and results.

In its latter function, MASwings has to compete for passengers with AirAsia, an almost hopeless mission given that the latter plies routes between the major towns in the two states using far more comfortable and bigger jet planes.

Given such clearly unsatisfactory and even contradictory performance expectations of MASwings, it unsurprisingly wilts and something obviously has to give way. It will be a major setback for Sarawak’s tourism promotion efforts if Mulu is among the biggest casualties as it is one of the state’s star tourist assets.

The most obvious solution is to clearly restrict MASwing’s mission to poviding rural air services for the federal government and for all other commercially viable flights between points in Sarawak and Sabah to be opened to existing commercial airlines.


Build 300km road to Mulu?

That, however, may still leave Mulu in a sticky grey zone, with an airport that cannot accommodate big jets acting as a main constraint. Either Mulu Airport has to be given a quick upgrade to accommodate jet aircraft or flights into it be given over to regularly scheduled chartered operations by those willing and able to provide them.

A rather reflexive proposal proffered by politicians is to build a road from Miri to Mulu although it is questionable if the prospect of a 300km road trip particularly appeals to harried travellers. The not inconsiderable opportunity cost of a new road catering primarily to tourists alone makes this a somewhat irresponsible proposition.

There is also the all-important question of whether, even if mass tourism on a scale like what Sabah is envisaging is attainable, it is desirable and not counter-productive, especially where ecologically sensitive attractions such as Mulu is concerned.

Recently, state Minister for Tourism Datuk Abdul Karim Hamzah spoke out on the need for a study to ascertain if Sarawak is ready and able to cope with mass tourism. That is probably a moot point at this stage when the state has not quite got a handle on tourism of any scale to speak of.

But it may be relevant and not too late to ponder if Sarawak might be better off forgoing the chase for mass tourism and go instead for a higher-value, premium segment of the tourism market.

Casual observers always cynically remark that Sarawak does not have the stunning natural assets that Sabah is blessed with to make it on the tourism front. That is probably a self-defeating attitude to take.

Sarawak will most likely need to differentiate itself from Sabah to stand a chance of having an economically impactful tourism industry of its own. And as Mulu exemplifies, the state has unique tourist attractions which can complement if not supplant what Sabah has to offer.

Given that Sarawak is still relatively untouched by mass tourism, with its main tourist attractions still mostly off the well-beaten track, it is still possible for the state to consciously upgrade its tourism offerings to attract the more well-heeled travellers at the upper end of the tourism market seeking luxurious hideaways and seclusion.

As in other economic sectors, Sarawak will need to carve out its own unique and distinctive tourism niche. Deliberately targeting the upper end of the tourism market should not only be a reasonably attainable proposition but perhaps one well suited to Sarawak and its various tourist attractions.

Local tourism industry players and state tourism officials had better sit down and collectively chart the way forward for Sarawak tourism development.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 257.