Malaysia's frontier state Sabah

by AFP/Eileen Ng, Apr 2, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sabah

KOTA KINABALU, Malaysia, April 1, 2003 - Malaysia's exotic frontier state Sabah is enjoying a tourist boom despite worldwide woes over terrorism, war and pestilence.

With nearby Indonesia ravaged by last October's Bali bombing and Thailand experiencing saturation and over-development in popular resorts, Sabah's laid-back charm has won over affluent Asians and long-haul travellers.

Arrivals in Malaysia's second largest state on the northern tip of Borneo island surged 21 percent to hit 1.1 million last year, with tourist receipts up 16 percent to nearly one billion ringgit (263 million dollars).

The bulk of visitors are from within Asia, with affluent pensioners from Britain and Ireland also accounting for a large group, industry officials say.

This year, Sabah aims to lure 1.3 million visitors to pump in 1.4 billion ringgit into its coffers despite the Iraq war and the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak which has killed more than 60 people worldwide.

Hoteliers and tourism officials say they are prepared for a tough month but are optimistic that the industry, which has survived a series of setbacks over the past six years, will remain resilient.

"This is not the first time we are facing a crisis. The war and the SARS will have a slight impact but this is temporary," Reto Klauser, general manager of the five-star Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort, told AFP.

"We expect a tough April but my outlook for the rest of the year is still good."

Tourism is Sabah's third largest foreign exchange earner after agriculture and timber, and the industry is no stranger to crises.

Its close proximity to southern Philippines, where the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Abu Sayyaf Muslim terror groups operate, has brought a slew of problems.

Abu Sayyaf rebels raided Sabah's popular diving resort of Sipadan in April 2000 and took 21 hostages, including 12 foreign tourists.

Following the September 11 attacks in the United States and the Bali bombing, the state was blacklisted in the travel advisories of several Western countries over terrorism fears.

Sabah has also been entangled in a territorial dispute with Indonesia over resource-rich Sipadan and Ligitan islands, but last year notched up a victory when the World Court in The Hague ruled that the two islands belonged to Malaysia.

Despite all the headaches, tourists continued to flock to the state.

Tourism officials noted arrivals surged sharply by 60 percent year-on-year to 774,475 in 2000 despite the kidnappings, and rose 19 percent in 2001 and 21 percent last year to break the one million mark.

Sabah Tourism Board market communication manager Noredah Othman said cruise ships and many regional tourists diverted to the state last year after the attacks on the United States and the Bali bombing.

The board aims to lure more visitors from China, Japan and South Korea this year, with plans for improved air linkages in the region and to Australia over the next few months, she said.

"Long-haul travellers especially top spenders from the US, Britain and Germany will decrease but we aim to garner regional markets especially in North Asia," she said.

Security concerns continue to cast a shadow over Sabah but officials pin their hopes on the state's natural attractions to help lift the cloud.

Sabah is home to Southeast Asia's highest peak, Mount Kinabalu, as well as many protected rare mammals and flora. Some of the world's most prized diving spots dot its outlying islands.

"Many people have forgotten what natural friendliness and unspoilt hospitality really are because of over-commercialised destinations. Sabah can give that to tourists and that's not so easy to find these days," said Shangri-La's Klauser.

* * * * *