Friday, May 18, 2012

Boosting Sarawak tourism

THERE are those who argue that it is not the government's business to be in business. Malaysia, like many other countries in the region, dared to defy such orthodoxy and can claim that its remarkable achievements in the last several decades had been precisely because of economic activism on the part of government.

In the case of Sarawak, government involvement in the economy has been at best a mixed blessing.

In aiding industrialisation, government-led investments -- such as in cement manufacturing -- have proven to be inspired. But for each successful foray, the government also chalked up failures.

One area where the state government has invested much (hundreds of millions of ringgit, primarily in hotels) but not reaped much success is in tourism. Many reasons have been given for the relative lack of success in Sarawak (as compared with Sabah, for instance) but a haphazard approach on the part of the government towards tourism promotion needs to share the blame.

Out of exasperation, perhaps over a perceived lack of direct air access into the state from major points where tourists originate, the state is in the process of taking over MASwings (which is supposed to be Malaysia Airlines' outfit to serve the government's rural air services into remote localities in Sarawak and Sabah).

Already, the airline has taken on some routes between the two states and points in Kalimantan, as well as to Brunei. But except for the already well-plied route between Kuching and the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak, the long-term sustainability of other routes within Borneo remains a huge question mark.

MASwings is talking about linking up to such cities as Balikpapan and Manado in Indonesia and Davao in the Philippines. But these same cities had been served by MAS before and quickly abandoned. It cannot be that MASwings knows something about these routes that its mother airline did not already know.

Where the state government had been largely absent, such as in the increasingly bright spot of medical tourism, things have actually moved by leaps and bounds.

The three existing private hospitals in Kuching are doing so well that all have either expanded or are expanding. Another major hospital will soon open and all are targeting the lucrative clientele from just across the border in West Kalimantan, aside from the local clientele, of course.

The state government may think it can aid these hospitals by soon opening air services to the booming oil hub of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan. It may well be mistaken. The Indonesian customer base of Kuching private hospitals is the Chinese business community that forms much of the middle class in West Kalimantan.

The monied class in Balikpapan is the expatriate community serving the oil and gas sector. This class of potential clients very likely already have their medical packages with Singapore hospitals written into their employment contracts.

If the state government really wants to help the medical tourism industry in the state, it will be well advised to give priority to having MASwings ply directly between Kuching and Jakarta, now only served via a Pontianak stopover.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Boosting Sarawak tourism