Skip to main content

Sabah, Sarawak Tourist Arrivals Closer to Pre-COVID-19 Levels

Date Published
September 14, 2023

Sabah is home to Mount Kinabalu, one of the natural wonders of Borneo. Photo credit: iStock/R.M. Nunes

Sabah and Sarawak are seeing strong increase in tourist arrivals amid aggressive marketing campaigns, including strong presence in international and local travel fairs, and promotion of cultural festivals and other events. The resumption of international direct flights are also helping to lift numbers.

In a media report, Tourism Malaysia Director-General Datuk Dr Ammar Abd Ghapar said Sabah’s tourism is well on its way to breaching the pre-COVID-19 level of 4.2 million arrivals, which equalled to 9 billion ringgit ($1.93 billion) in revenue. “Our recovery post-pandemic has surpassed most other tourist destinations in the world, and Sabah is well on its way to breaching the pre-pandemic level by 2024,” he was quoted in the report as saying.

Similarly, Sarawak has seen strong growth in tourist arrivals. Another report said the state is on track to meeting its target of 3 million arrivals for 2023. As of July, arrivals stood at 2.27 million, including over 1 million foreign visitors.

Both states saw tourist arrivals plunge in the wake of the pandemic. Visitor arrivals in Sabah in 2020 fell by more than 76% to less than a million tourists, while Sarawak saw a drop of 74% from 4.66 million in 2019 to 1.2 million in 2020.

In response, the two Malaysian states mounted aggressive marketing campaigns to lure back tourists.

In recent months, the Sabah Tourism Board joined international travel fairs, including in Seoul in May, Singapore in April, Berlin in March, as well as local expos.

At the Malaysia International Travel Mart in July in Penang, officials reported that sales of Sabah tourism packages doubled from last year, indicating rising interests from travelers.

At the Internationale Tourismus-Borse Berlin (ITB Berlin), Sabah’s tourism authorities launched a campaign, highlighting the state being part of Borneo to target the European market and capitalize on travelers' interest on the island, which is home to natural wonders, such as Mount Kinabalu, Maliau Basin, and Tip of Borneo.

In a news release announcing the Sabah Tourism Board’s participation in ITB Berlin, Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew credited the resumption of international direct flights for helping boost tourist arrivals to the state.

Airlines serving both Sabah and Sarawak started to restore flights last year when countries reopened borders as COVID-19 infections declined. AirAsia, Scoot, Malaysia Airlines, Jin Air, Jeju Air, Air Busan, and Royal Brunei Airlines are among airlines serving the two states.

Similarly, Sarawak has been aggressive in promoting travel. The Sarawak Tourism Board had also been active in travel fairs over the past months, both local and abroad. In August, it joined the Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents Fair in Kuala Lumpur, where it promoted various tourism offerings that highlighted the state’s culture, arts and craft, adventure and nature attractions, and rich gastronomy.

In June, Kuching, the state capital, hosted the 3-day PATA Destination Experience Forum and Mart 2023, which brought together 272 delegates from 28 destinations. Sarawak Tourism Board Chief Executive Officer Sharzede Datu Hj Salleh Askor said the state was the perfect venue for the event from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) as it highlighted ecotourism, gastronomy tourism, and adventure travel. “These themes are very much aligned with Sarawak’s tourism philosophy that emphasizes responsible tourism, gastronomy, and sustainability.”

Sarawak also attracted tourists from across the globe when it hosted the Rainforest World Music Festival in June in Kuching, with headliners that included international acts Gipsy Kings and Big Mountain and local performers headed by singer-songwriter Zee Avi.

Another music festival, the Borneo Sonic 2023, is slated in October and will feature K-pop artists, including Taeyang, the main vocalist and dancer of the boy band Big Bang; CL, member of girl group 2NE1; Suho, the leader of EXO; and Hyo of Girls' Generation.

Local authorities have also mounted festivals promoting the state’s cuisine, including one in July–August which showcased Kuching’s cuisine. Last year, Kuching was named by UNESCO as a “City of Gastronomy,” a nod not just to the capital’s rich food culture and heritage but also a recognition of the commitment of the local government and other stakeholders to leverage on the city's cuisine to bolster sustainable growth. Kuching is the first city in BIMP-EAGA to join the gastronomy list.

Thanks to initiatives promoting travel to the state, the Sarawak Tourism Board recently bagged two awards at the BrandLaureate BestBrands Awards for 2022–2023, which was held in Kuala Lumpur.