KOTA KINABALU: Dining trips involving the consumption of meat from protected animals, illegal currency exchange, illegal tours and vehicles, and the reselling of tours are among the issues plaguing Sabah’s tourism industry, according to a licensed tour guide.
He said this in response to the protest against unlicensed foreign guides at the Kota Kinabalu International Airport on July 15, which had resulted in dozens of Chinese tourists being stranded.
They had claimed that the presence of such guides had greatly affected their income.
The federal and state tourism ministries had criticised their action, saying the airport was not the correct venue to air their grouses. Worse still, the tourism and culture ministry said it had not found illegal foreign guides operating in Sabah.
Subsequently, the protest sparked an investigation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) on possible wrongdoings by tourism-related government agencies and those in the private sector.
Requesting anonymity, the licensed guide spoke to FMT because there were many other issues, not just the presence of illegal guides, plaguing the industry.
“It’s like a syndicate running these tours. They even provide a currency exchange service for the tourists, which may contravene Bank Negara regulations as well,” the guide told FMT.
“Tour company bosses would give loans out to tour guides, between RM60,000 and RM100,000 for a big group at a fixed currency exchange rate, that is much lower than at licensed money changers, especially during peak seasons, such as Chinese New Year.
“The bosses will either get a cut of the profit or charge interest, a small percentage, on the money loaned.”
Some tour companies would hire poachers to hunt exotic animals, including those protected by law, such as pangolins, before dining trips are organised in areas such as Penampang.
“Others provide wildlife exotic dinners to Chinese guests who are willing to pay a huge amount of money to eat pangolins, wild boar, python meat, soft-shelled turtles and other wildlife exotic meats,” the guide said.
“The unlicensed tour operators will liaise with poacher-friends who arramge transportation to transfer the guests to the dinner venues, usually around Penampang and other residential areas.
“Even tour companies are into this – taking commissions and doing illegal tours by setting up restaurants, shopping and nature visits to view the proboscis monkeys and fireflies. That way, they can service the whole tour on their own.
“Similar dealings occur during island-hopping tours with commissions earned from water sports activities. Even taxi drivers bringing tourists to the jetty to go to the islands are paid advances for such activities.”
According to the guide, tour guides sometimes get “squeezed” when tour companies “sell” tours to them.
“There’s also the selling of tours to licensed tour guides by a tour company. For example, a group that has yet to arrive for their holiday will be auctioned at a price, usually per person, to any licensed tour guide who wants to ‘gamble’ on a tour,” he said.
“For example, a tour company may sell a tour for RM100 per head. So, for a 30-person Chinese group, it’s a RM3,000 investment or gamble on our part.
“The tour guide gets all the commissions from the shopping trips, water sports, dinners, restaurant visits, tips, etc, but if the guests aren’t spending money on these and buying items at the shopping malls instead, then the tour guides would suffer losses.
“This is one example of how tour companies are squeezing the tour guides and it’s a bad image for the country but the authorities do not see it.”
He explained that illegal tour guides exist as do illegal vehicles or public buses to service the tourists. Sometimes, tour companies prefer unlicensed personnel to be the guides while the proper guides will be just “sit-ins”.
“Some people use unlicensed guides and ‘white vans’ (not proper tour vehicles) for transport to do tours, normally day trips,” the guide said.
“They even sometimes use mini buses, which are supposed to service public commuters in Kota Kinabalu on the routes assigned to them, to do the tours.
“Some tour companies here in Kota Kinabalu are owned by Chinese nationals and they bring their own ‘guides’ to work the tours and the tour companies ‘legalise’ the whole tour by hiring a licensed tourist guide to just be a sit-in. It doesn’t matter if the sit-in guide does not speak the language.”
He added that these foreign-owned tour companies legitimise their tours by paying a minimum fee of between RM100 and RM150 for a day’s “work” to licensed guides like himself just for some sit-in work.
The shopping commissions are then taken by the company’s “guide” while the local Sabahan tourist guides do nothing and do not receive a percentage of the commissions.
“It’s bad in the eyes of the Chinese-speaking guides because their jobs have now been taken away,” the guide said.
“It’s scary because this loophole first started with the Korean groups. Now the Chinese groups are using this method. It’s an abuse, but in the eyes of the law, it’s legal and right.”
The guide said he felt sorry for his fellow guides because their rice bowls are seriously affected.
“RM10,000 in commissions and other payments, as reported in the news, are what they used to earn 10 years ago. Today, such earnings are almost non-existent,” the guide said.
“Today, some licensed tourist guides are considering giving up their guide badges to become non-licensed tour guides in order to venture into other areas in the tourism industry, armed with the skills and knowledge they have accumulated.”
The guide told FMT some people are even taking tourists around pretending as if they are their relatives.
“Even a Malay/non-Chinese can bring China nationals for tours and shopping trips and claim they are his relatives visiting, and this happens on a weekly basis. It’s laughable!
“Why is the federal tourism ministry or Matta (Malaysian Association of Tours and Travel Agents) not addressing this?
“No doubt money makes the world go round but why are the authorities not protecting Sabahan licensed tourist guides?”