Its natural beauty and rich culture have made Sabah a popular tourist destination on the island of Borneo. Visitor arrivals reached more than four million in 2019, up 8% from 2018, according to the Sabah Tourism Board.
Tourists flock to Sabah to see the Bornean Orangutans, Pygmy Elephants, and other endemic species in their natural habitat. Things to do on this northern part of Borneo include climbing Mount Kinabalu, cruising along Kinabatangan River, whitewater rafting, dive excursions, rural tourism activities, and culinary tours.
In 2020, however, tourism was hit hard worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic. Visitor arrivals in Sabah fell by more than 76% to less than a million tourists.
Jumpstarting the industry
Given current restrictions on international travel, tourism promotions in Sabah have focused on local tourists. Malaysians make up a large portion of its market anyway—64% before the pandemic and 81% in 2020.
The 3-month #RinduSabah campaign was launched in December to target domestic tourists using digital platforms. High-visibility advertisements promoting destinations were also placed in metropolitan Klang Valley, particularly the Bukit Bintang shopping and entertainment district and the affluent Mont Kiara area to reach locals as well as expatriates.
The #BahMarilah Kaw Kaw Edition gathers together a variety of travel packages and staycation deals as well as suggested itineraries based on traveling within designated zones.
Sabah is also targeting business tourism and the meeting, incentive, convention, and exhibitions (MICE) market. Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin says a strong MICE industry will help revitalize tourism as well as other economic sectors.
While big events are not yet feasible, efforts to improve MICE will focus on industry upskilling to build capacity to manage events according to international standards, says Sabah Tourism Board General Manager Noredah Othman. In February, the tourism board organized a 4-day Congress Certification Program with the Malaysian Association of Convention and Exhibition Organizers and Suppliers. The training program was held virtually and attended by 25 participants.
Investing in infrastructure
Investments in tourism and related infrastructure are likewise expected to help boost tourism.
The federal government has allocated 26.8 million ringgit (about $6.5 million) to develop Sabah tourism, including the development of new products, such as a proposed cultural village and art gallery.
Local and foreign investors are also vying with each other to build a Sky Train for Sabah, which is seen to benefit tourism both as a new attraction and as a convenient means of traveling across the state.
Now is the right time to improve offerings while tourism activities are slow, says Malaysia’s Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri. “We must have complete tourism infrastructure when tourists come.”
Among the new destinations in Sabah is the Tun Mustapha Museum in the town of Kudat, which is known for Rungus longhouses and white sand beaches. Named after the first Sabah governor, the museum was one of the projects under the 11th Malaysia Plan that was completed last year.
The next attraction to be opened is Balambangan Cave, which is believed to be more than 60 million years old. What also makes it interesting is that the rocks inside the cave shine when exposed to light. Balambangan Island is an hour’ boat ride from Kudat Marina Jetty.
Though Sabah is not yet accepting travelers from abroad, marketing efforts continue to keep it top of mind.
In February, the tourism board launched a 3-month “book now, pay later” promotion for Thailand. The SABAHDEEKhrap campaign offers a wide range of products and packages, including jungle survival training, whitewater rafting, fireflies tour, kayaking at sunrise, diving, and community-based tourism activities. It offers flexibility to travel until the end of the year.
Visitor arrivals from Thailand rose by 19.4% to 4,738 in 2019. Before COVID-19, Air Asia flew direct flights from Bangkok thrice a week to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s main gateway.
For South Korea, Sabah’s second largest market in 2019, the tourism board uses social media platforms, such as Naver, Kakao, and Instagram, to promote and retain market awareness of the destination.