ROUTES ASIA: Sarawak's Island Style

Sarawak is pursuing a five-year air services development plan. Lucy Siebert spoke with tourism chief, Dato Rashid Khan.

Borneo: The word conjures up images of traditional warriors, rainforest, mountains and, of course, those endangered orangutans. The island is renowned for its biodiversity and rich cultural heritage, but now the Sarawak Tourism Board is aiming to increase air services and tourist numbers, while maintaining the destination’s pristine nature.

Borneo is relatively well known by high-end tourists and adventure seekers in regions such as South East Asia, Europe and Australia, but because it is an island, getting there hasn’t always been that easy.

Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state Sarawak, which shares borders with Brunei and Indonesia, has good connections to Kuala Lumpur with the likes of Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. In recent years, however, its tourism authority has set out to increase the number of direct flights from the city from other regional hubs and to leverage airline partnerships more.

Sarawak Tourism Board launched its five-year air services transformation plan in 2011 in a bid to increase air accessibility to Kuching. Its CEO, Dato Rashid Khan, told our sister publication, Routes News, the air services strategy is a core part of the organisation’s efforts.  

“One of our biggest issues has been accessibility. We are the third largest island in the world and we need air connectivity as a key fundamental to transform our tourism industry,” he said. “People can’t swim to the island, so we have undertaken to transform our tourism industry with air accessibility as the key pillar.”

The plan prioritises working with carriers flying from Kuching to the likes of Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Singapore, Brunei and Kota Kinabalu on better schedules, offering more convenient connections. “We already had airlines flying here from those major connecting points, but our strategy called for more tolerable transit times through those airports,” he explained.

The next phase will see the organisation working with airlines and their codeshare partners, in an effort to get the Kuching code in more of the GDSs. “This will link Kuching to the world,” Khan states.

Hosting Routes Asia 2014 is aimed at showcasing Kuching and Sarawak to more airline network planners ahead of the ASEAN community moving towards greater aviation liberalisation in 2015. In particular, the Sarawak Tourism Board is keen to meet with delegates from North Asia, which Khan says is a priority area.

“[We are targeting] countries like Taiwan, Korea, Japan and China. The new A350 and B787 aircraft are the ideal aircraft size to operate those sectors [from Kuching]. They also have the eight strategic feeds, which would be very effective for us,” said Khan.

With Asia-Pacific’s low-cost carrier revolution marching on, Khan says the tourism authority is also working hard on attracting more no-frills services. “We’ve had a good response from the LCCs – they are very robust in their planning. When we engage with them, they often develop new city pairs within Malaysia or the rest of the region,” he said.

Already this year the darling of Asian aviation, AirAsia has announced new direct flights from Kuching to Kota Bharu and Langkawi starting in March, and Khan believes there will be more LCC announcements to come. “We are currently in discussions with a few LCCs in Hong Kong and China. They are looking for new business opportunities,” he said.

And while Sarawak might be a tourism hotspot, there is also growing business traffic due to the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy. This is a 70,000sqkm resource rich area with a population of 600,000 and renewable resources such as hydropower.

But just what exactly can Sarawak offer visitors? Its tourism industry and products are focused on nature and culture, with 28 tribes being native to Sarawak. “We position Sarawak as an adventure product experience – it is mainly nature-based products, which is natural with our 17 national parks,” said Khan.

Activities such as rafting and kayaking are popular, while “culinary adventure” is growing in popularity with the “very different foods in the jungle of Borneo” proving popular with tourists, said Khan.

Last year, Sarawak welcomed more than three million tourist arrivals between January and September, 6 per cent growth on the same period last year. According to Khan, about 40 per cent of arrivals are international, with the 60 per cent majority being made up of Malaysian visitors. In total, Malaysia welcomed 12.6 million tourists in the first half of 2013 and the country is aiming to boost that to 36 million by 2020.

In terms of markets, Sarawak Tourism Board is particularly focused on the UK, Germany and Belgium, says Khan. He says it already records “substantial numbers of visitors” who connect via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

Khan also points to growing numbers of Chinese tourists who tend to travel to Sarawak with charter operators. He said the tourism board has been particularly active with working with Chinese tour operators or travel companies from other over-populated cities in the region. “We are engaging with operators especially from the large cities in urban areas – we can put those people back into nature and the fresh air,” he added.

While domestic tourists make up the bulk of Sarawak’s visitors, in South East Asia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines are the biggest markets. Sarawak has also prioritised major events as a key pillar in growing visitation and awareness. In 2014, it will host 13 major tourism events, alongside Routes Asia and the ASEAN Tourism Forum, which took place in January.

While those two events have attracted tourism and aviation leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region, the annual Rainforest World Music Festival is an internationally renowned event that attracts thousands of visitors and journalists from all over the world. With the tourism board prioritising events and air services in the years ahead, Sarawak looks set to cement its position as one of South East Asia’s leading destinations.