Friday, March 17, 2017

How Malaysia’s golden goose of ecotourism, Sabah, keeps the visitors coming

The East Malaysian state has fostered an economy that’s as robust as its many natural wonders, from Lake Toba to Mount Kinabalu

Policymakers would be wise to study what the East Malaysian state of Sabah has done right.

With 3.4 million visitors in 2016 – more than a million from China alone – Sabah has become one of Asia’s most successful eco- and adventure-tourism destinations.

Of course, a combination of Mount Kinabalu (Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain), countless diving spots as well as pristine forests have helped boost the state.

Budget carrier AirAsia has also played a vital role, driving down fares and expanding capacity.

However, Sabah wasn’t always a success story. Twenty-five years ago, the state was facing a major economic dilemma.

For decades, local businessmen had focused on extractive industries, logging the state’s extraordinarily rich forests. But by the early 1990s, it was clear that was unsustainable.

Datuk Masidi Manjun, the Minister of Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment, is sanguine: “Back then, it wasn’t difficult persuading ordinary Sabahans that conservation was the way forward. Sabahans have always had a close affinity with the forests.

“It helps that tourism, culture and the environment are all under the same ministry. This means we are able to craft and coordinate the right policies, thereby ensuring that everyone, including the private sector, is moving in the same direction,” he said.

Jackie Jimin, a 29-year-old native Murut marketing professional is extremely upbeat. Having studied and worked for many years in Kuala Lumpur she was able to return to Sabah in 2010 and find similarly well-paid work: “I came back to look after my mother who’s been ill. The local economy’s a lot more diverse now. The tourism boom has opened up lots of opportunities. Things are ‘amplified and advanced’.”

Others are more cautious. Asgari Stephens, a Kuala Lumpur-based but Sabah-born private equity investor talks about the need to upgrade local skills: “We need to raise standards, improve training and work to compete with Bali and Phuket. Mass tourism from China isn’t necessarily very profitable.”

“Sabahans are proud of their cultural heritage. This is taught and nurtured in schools. We are a multicultural and multireligious people. The state government is working hard to ensure that our native cultures thrive.”