What Role Do Airports Play in Increasing Inbound Tourism?

Ahead of this year’s Routes Asia forum, which takes place in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia early next month, The HUB spoke to Tan Sri Bashir, managing director, Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad, to find out more about the key role airports play in enhancing connectivity and driving tourism growth.

In The Terminal starring Tom Hanks, the comfort and beauty of JFK International Airport is not enough to satisfy the Krakozhian traveler Viktor Navorski who needs to get into New York city to fulfill his mission. Airports are ultimately only the gateway and not the destination.

“Airports however do play an important role in bringing in the crowd and is no longer confined to providing superior infrastructure, competitive rates and extensive connections. Airports have to market the destination as well with the primary target being the airline and the secondary target the traveler,” explained Bashir.

In a playing field where destinations have to compete for any airlines’ business, the way an airport markets the destination can be a strong decider for the airline. This is clearly evident in the case of Kuala Lumpur which has had to grapple with two very strong competitors – Bangkok and Singapore, both of which are tourist getaways and business hubs.

Kuala Lumpur and specifically its gateway, Kuala Lumpur International Airport has managed to hold its own largely due to joint efforts of the airport together with the tourism authority and the airlines. Total passenger volume leapt from 27.5 million in 2008 to 47.5 million in 2013. In terms of international passenger traffic it ranked number 12 in the world with 23.8 million passengers from September 2012 to September 2013 ahead of Tokyo Narita, Madrid Barajas and New York John F Kennedy International.

The lesson learnt from its growth can be applied to satellite airports such as Kuching, the third largest airport in Malaysia in terms of passenger number with 4.85 million passengers in 2013 and poised for even greater numbers in the near future. “There is potential from both domestic and international routes,” said Bashir.

“Kuching airport is probably the airport with the most advanced facilities in Borneo. Not just the airport but the city’s infrastructure is up to date with convention centers, hotels and road networks linking most parts of the city. Just like how we had to tell people there actually was something in between Thailand and Singapore in the good old days, we have to do the same with Kuching.”

Tan Sri Bashir,
Managing Director,
Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad

The Kuala Lumpur – Kuching sector is the second busiest route between airports in Malaysia with approximately 52,000 available seats per week, behind only the Kuala Lumpur – Kota Kinabalu route. “The number of international flights into Kuching has increased with the addition of Xpress Air flying in from Pontianak in Indonesia in 2013 in addition to Malaysia Airlines and flights from Singapore by SilkAir, AirAsia, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines,” added Bashir.

However, he said Kuching “is never an easy sell with the international airlines” and that he explained is probably due to “a lack of knowledge” about its location. Some quick research will show it is in the centre of the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) growth triangle. It is also within a five hour flight of all the major cities in Southern China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and South East Asia, a market size of more than a billion people.

“Kuching airport is probably the airport with the most advanced facilities in Borneo. Not just the airport but the city’s infrastructure is up to date with convention centers, hotels and road networks linking most parts of the city,” said Bashir. “Just like how we had to tell people there actually was something in between Thailand and Singapore in the good old days, we have to do the same with Kuching.”

To get airlines through the door, Malaysia Airports provide incentives to new airlines or existing airlines such as free landing charges, office rental and funding for marketing and promotional activities. “We needn’t have but we know that these small discounts go a long way. To the airlines there is a risk of a new route but we try to lessen that risk. We also advise them to start with a small number of flights and build up the capacity over time,” said Bashir.

Kuching will host this year's Routes Asia forum which will take place between March 9-11, 2014.  Please click here for all the news about the event: Routes Asia 2014.

It is not just about educating the airlines to the destination and the recently concluded ASEAN Tourism Forum 2014 which was held in Kuching points to the city acting as a springboard to nature and adventure in other parts of Sarawak has helped to educate the traveler about the region.

“We are surprised that many do not know that Kuching has mountains, rivers beaches, national parks, caves and wildlife sanctuaries – all within an hour from the city. It is also culturally very diverse and colourful in terms of cuisine, history, architecture, music and the arts,” said Bashir.  “What we are saying is that you don’t have to hop on to another plane from Kuching. The option is available only if you choose to do so. There is enough to do in Kuching to keep even the most intrepid traveller occupied,” he added.

Bashir acknowledged that in the past the promotion campaigns “may have been missing some focus”. It is only after testing and experimenting and working together with partners that Malaysia Airports now feels that they have collectively hit on the correct formula which is a strong emphasis on adventure with elements of nature and culture.

“We are working closely with the Ministry of Tourism Sarawak and other bodies to spread the word and it just needs time and patience on our part working with these various agencies before Kuching gets the attention it rightfully deserves,” he added.


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