Time to be proactive on air connectivity
John Teo 

WITH direct, non-stop flights linking Kota Kinabalu to a dozen cities in mainland China, Sabah is steadily reaping the rich bonanza of the Asian economic powerhouse’s outbound tourism trade, now averaging well in excess of US$100 mil (RM390 mil) annually worldwide.

The recent boom in new hotel openings in the Sabah capital is barely coping with the tourist invasion from China and, to a lesser extent, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines.

Hotels in the city and elsewhere in the state were reportedly fully booked over the recent Chinese New Year holidays.

Nearly 400,000 Chinese tourists visited Sabah last year, and the state government is ambitiously but not unrealistically targeting to reach a million tourists this year as more China-bound flights are likely to be added.

This is all music to the ears of those businesses in Sabah that cater to tourists. But contrast that with what is going on in Sarawak.


Attracting tourists

Despite considerable efforts and much official hand-wringing, the state seems able to attract only spurts of tourist arrivals, and that too around major events such as the recent World Islamic Economic Forum in Kuching and the annual Rainforest World Music Festival.

There is a downside to hosting such mass gatherings, to be sure. Local business travellers grumbled that attempting to get in or out of the state when it is hosting major events is near impossible.

Besides, it is also hugely expensive as airlines jack up ticket prices in tandem with prevailing demand at any given time.

All this points to the wholly unsatisfactory state of commercial aviation in Sarawak, which is often cited as the major dampener to serious efforts to promote tourism.

It is also becoming something of a sore point for locals who regularly travel to and from the state.

As local airlines such as AirAsia increasingly turn secondary Malaysian airports such as Kota Kinabalu, Johor Bahru, Penang and even Langkawi into international hubs, Sarawak and in particular Kuching which is also designated as a hub by AirAsia, has good reason to feel seriously aggrieved and missing out.

Businesspeople and leisure travellers from Sarawak are quietly seething. This is primarily because of the dearth of direct air connections from Sarawak to points beyond the country.

The Sarawak government probably needs to change tack and recognise that Kuching, in particular, is more of a business hub than it will be a tourism one.

Hence, it needs to strategise and market the state capital accordingly to the airlines.

The state government offered AirAsia land within the vicinity of Kuching International Airport to build a low-cost terminal.

But AirAsia showed no indication it will bite into the offer, despite its so-far fruitless hunt to build its own low-cost terminal anywhere in the country.

To be fair to it, AirAsia probably feels that, at the moment, Sarawak needs the airline more than the other way round, and has reportedly requested the state government to build the terminal instead.


Woo any airline

But if Kuching is viewed more as a city that’s crucial for business travellers rather than tourist arrivals and departures, it behoves the state government to woo any airline to collaborate.

Given the competition among the three major air carriers in the country, the state government may want to consider talking to the other two airlines on a serious collaboration to turn Kuching into a business air hub of some consequence.

This must necessitate the state government having a concrete blueprint to turn the city into a major logistics and warehousing hub to serve all of Sarawak and beyond.

Given that the state is developing exports of high-value and perishable foodstuff, Kuching, as a major air-cargo hub, needs to be part and parcel of its economic game-plan.

Sarawak importers of dairy products from Australia, for instance, reportedly faced some recent business disruptions following a streamlining of Malaysia Airlines routes there.

To be sure, Sarawak on its own or any place else in Borneo, lacks the requisite scale to turn itself overnight into a serious player in the air-cargo business in and of itself.

But Kuching stands a better chance than others on the island to build on whatever economic scale that exists.

The state will also need to leverage on other drivers to realise the state capital as a major direct air link to regional cities.

Business travel to and from the state is another obvious area to look at. The state government can, with some ingenuity and a little difficulty, tally up the number of trips generated from within Sarawak and identify the final foreign destination.

Calculated over a given time, such data can be used to entice airlines to mount direct flights between the state and the most popular foreign cities among Sarawakians.

Given that businesspeople place a premium on time-saving travel plans, they would be willing to pay a slight premium for direct air routes from the state to regional cities.

Even leisure travellers from Sarawak may gladly pay more for the time-saving convenience of direct point-to-point air connectivity.

Inbound tourist traffic can then be built around such routes instead of using hoped-for tourist inflows as the primary and overriding guide to the opening up of international air routes out of Sarawak.

Left to their own devices, the airlines have so far failed to meet the Sarawak government’s and Sarawakians’ desire for better and much more convenient air connectivity.

It is time the state authorities adopted a far more proactive and even aggressive stance to make all the talk about better air connectivity a reality.

John Teo is based in Kuching. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 274.