The current project of reimaging Kuching as a destination is part of a five-year Tourism Industry Transformation Program which began in 2010 with one thought in mind – to improve the visitor experience in a very niche market and to position Sarawak as a home of adventure with elements of culture and nature. Ahead of Routes Asia, The HUB Daily sat down with Dato’ Rashid Khan, chief executive officer, Sarawak Tourism Board to learn more about his vision.
Sarawak is situated on the third largest island in the world and that makes accessibility a major challenge but the Tourism Board are aware they need to make it easy for travellers to get to the region, thus the reason to host Routes Asia. “The key challenge is to improve air-connectivity so that visitors are able to experience the well kept secrets of Borneo,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan.
The first phase of this process has been to enhance the visitor experience and work with airline partners operating through hub airports such as Kuala Lumpur International and Singapore Changi and increase air connectivity through these facilities. “The very least was to make the journey more comfortable through reducing transit and waiting time to connect to not only Kuching airport in Sarawak but also to airports such as Sibu, Miri and Bintulu,” explained Dato’ Rashid Khan.
The Tourism Board has also collaborated with the airlines to create more city pairs to enable travellers to fly direct to Sarawak, a project that has proved fruitful. “On the domestic front, AirAsia is forthcoming and aggressive in developing city pairs such as between Kuching or Miri and Penang, Kota Bahru, Kuala Trengganu and Johore Bahru and Langkawi bypassing Kuala Lumpur altogether. Similarly in terms of regional flights we have helped bring in Xpress Air and MASWings to Kuching from Pontianak,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan.
The second phase of the plan has been to engage with partner airlines like Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia, Silk Air and Malindo Air to operate more frequencies on their existing routes and Dato’ Rashid Khan believes the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community will help it succeed. “We are preparing for the eventual ASEAN Economic Community that will open up opportunities for airlines within ASEAN member countries to capitalise on the Visitors the implementation of the ASEAN Open Sky Policy Roadmap by 2015 with more liberal aviation agreement of a single market,” he said.
Outside ASEAN the Sarawak Tourism Board have identified other key markets with development opportunities, most notably Taiwan, Hong Kong and China where there is a demand for outbound and inbound travel to and from Sarawak.
“Despite the lack of direct flights, visitor arrivals figures from these countries are growing at a healthy growth rates,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan. “We are targeting idle planes lying overnight in major airports in these countries and attract them to fly either scheduled or non-scheduled charters into Kuching or Miri airports and back- something which can be easily achieved within an eight to ten hour time frame and sweat their assets without compromising on their normal schedules and operations.”
A key part of the strategy has been an investment in marketing communication messages to reimage Sarawak as a business and leisure tourism destination with a strong focus on adventure with elements of culture and nature to offer visitors different experiences in one place.
Sarawak’s multicultural capital city, Kuching, has a long history, but offers visitors more. There are four nature parks on both land and water – Bako National Park, Kuching Wetland National Park, Kubah National Park and Talang Satang National Park all within 40minutes to 90 minutes radius. Most visitors are aware of the Mulu Caves but Kuching also has the Wind Cave and Fairy Cave among others that are just 40 minutes from the city center. The city also has Gunung Santubong, Damai Beach and the Sarawak River, all providing very different adventure and nature experiences to the visitor.
“Accessibility to tourism attractions will be made easier for visitors to move around as we are looking into ways in which people can enjoy the city using different modes of transport. As Kuching is not very big city, visitors who come here are used to going on foot and take walking tours to discover the city. Of course, other mode of transportation such as buses and taxis are only used for longer distances such as going to the airport or to go out of town,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan.
The Tourism Board is also starting to look at how the Sarawak River which runs through Kuching can enhance the visitor experience. “With the ferry and water taxi services, you can get from one place to another and also have a different view of the city, see new places and enjoy the peace and calm of a river running through the city,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan. The Kuching Waterfront is currently being expanded and very soon we will have a pedestrian bridge connecting both banks of the river near the State Assembly Building.
Alongside accessibility, the transformation plan also identified that tourists visiting Sarawak were becoming more varied and coming to the region to experience different product offerings. Where previously there were only two types of hotels – business class hotels and backpacker hotels – both of which are located in the city centre- now different types of hotels are being added to the mix to cater to different types of visitors.
For those who prefer mid-priced boutique hotels, there are several to choose from located around the city with four new hotels are being planned to offer more variety and add 1,500 – 2,000 more rooms by 2016. A 400 room hotel will also be built next to the airport; the UCSI Hotel Kuching will be built near the Borneo Convention Center for those who are in town for an event, while there are also a few ultra luxury hotels being built near the historical part of town.
“While we are still at the infancy stage in terms of tourism infrastructure, we have always been welcoming and hospitable,” said Dato’ Rashid Khan. “It is our second nature to be friendly to visitors. We hope build on this and bring in the visitors to experience first-hand this warm and friendly city. And this is the image we want to project to airlines and tour operators from all over the world attending Routes Asia 2014.”