Monday, January 21, 2008

Tourism to help change Sabah

With its rich natural beauty and mystique, Sabah has great potential to be a world-class tourist destination.

From being home to South-East Asia’s highest peak Mount Kinabalu to the diving haven of Sipadan, Sabah has many untapped natural attractions and with next week’s launch of the Sabah Development Corridor (SDC), tourism looks set to be the leading economic driver.

To the local industry players, tourism is the most sustainable economic sector compared with manufacturing or agriculture.

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun, who strongly believes that tourism will always remain a product that will bring in foreign exchange and provide steady income, said: “If you look at it, we have seen factories fold up and investors leave for cheaper labour markets like Vietnam or China, agriculture has its limits in terms of land available and locals hardly benefit from jobs in these sectors, unlike in tourism where the industry is driven by locals, basically in every aspect of the sector.

“This is where tourism will be sustainable and will bring direct and indirect benefits to the people in urban or rural areas,” Masidi said in an interview ahead of the launch of the SDC on Jan 29.

Currently the tourism sector employs 14,000 people directly and with greater focus on tourism under the SDC, the impact would be far reaching and affect other sectors particularly the service industry.

“The sectors that will feel the immediate effects are accommodation, food and beverage, transportation, entertainment and retail .

“The private sector is playing the lead role in developing the tourism sector while the state and federal governments are the facilitator and regulators by providing infrastructure, incentives and policy guidelines,” he said.

He noted that tourism in rural areas like Pekan Nabalu (near Mount Kinabalu) had benefited local folks who sold handicrafts, local fruits and honey. Sales of local handicraft amounted to RM138.7mil last year.

“This is the positive side of unreported expenditure and the money is returned to the local economy with great multiplier effect,” he added.

Remaining buoyant about Sabah’s tourism growth, Masidi said tourist arrivals increased by 14.4% growing from 1.8 million in 2004 to 2.2 million in 2007, he said, adding that they were targeting 2.6 million visitors by 2010.

Sabah has 115 direct flights a week from 15 cities across Asia and is now focusing on increasing the number of flights once the Kota Kinabalu International Airport renovation is completed by May 2009.

The state hopes to make its tourism products sustainable and open up more attractions for visitors to spend more time in the state.

The key challenge will be to increase physical development of appropriate tourism products especially in the rural areas to cater for the anticipated increase in arrivals.

“What is most important in our move to improve and beautify the environment is that we should be careful not to destroy coral reefs, wildlife habitats and ecosystems.

“Sabah’s tourism assets are its environment. We must preserve it for the long-term and we should not undertake environmentally damaging projects like the coal-fired power plant that could damage our coral reefs in Darvel Bay,” he added.

He said the state wanted to see more people investing in eco-tourism products of quality and value which not only protect and conserve the environment but generate employment and spin-off opportunities for the people.

“With the SDC, we are on gear five. We are on our way to become a major tourist destination with the heavy investments identified in the blueprint. We will be able to open up more islands in the east coast.

“There are 42 unexplored islands. We have more to offer than Sipadan,” said Masidi, adding that Sabah’s east coast tourism potential had hardly been exploited over the years.

Among the SDC’s highlights for development is to market Sabah as an exclusive holiday home destination, develop new tourism products anchored by signature resorts, encourage rural participation through community-based tourism, develop a one-district one-product programme, make the state a centre of excellence for tropical biodiversity research and to set up an arts and culture fund.

It has identified areas for immediate action, including providing basic tourism development infrastructure before moving into strengthening Sabah’s position as a premier eco-adventure destination through conservation, research and sustainable development of new tourism products.

The 18-year plan hopes to see Sabah being transformed into one of the most liveable places in Asia – a bustling metropolis in a tropical paradise.

Source : STAR
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