Don’t bank too much on China market, tourism players told

Sedco Square, in the heart of Kota Kinabalu city, is usually packed with tourists particularly from China who come to savour the state’s famous seafood, but tables have been empty of late.

KOTA KINABALU: The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) has cautioned industry players against being too dependent on tourist arrivals from China, urging them to look instead to other viable markets.

This follows reports that hotels in the country were hit by a 30% drop in Chinese tourists during the recent “Golden Week” which marked the National Day holiday in China.

Sabah was not exempted, with the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) reporting a drop of 15-25% in Chinese arrivals, including a reduction in the entry of high-end tourists from China.

Matta president Tan Kok Liang acknowledged that tourists from China still represented the bulk of tourism receipts in the state, but advised tourism players to broaden their horizons.

“Canton and Shanghai contributed the top two arrivals with 24 and 16 weekly flights to Sabah respectively.

Matta president Tan Kok Liang.

“But it’s time for stakeholders to diversify into more domestic, UK, Europe, Japan and Asean markets instead of over-relying on China,” he told FMT.

On the reported drop in check-ins by Chinese tourists at Sabah hotels, Tan said official figures were not yet available.

“Statistics from tourist entry points, which are the airports and Immigration Department, have not yet been released.

“Hoteliers also need to consider the loss of business to the Airbnb segment, which remains unreported, and other unlicensed service providers,” he said.

According to the Sabah Hotel Association, general observations showed a slight drop in Chinese tourist arrivals. However, the association’s immediate past president Christopher Chan said the decline was unlikely to have a big impact.

Citing data from the Sabah Tourism Board, Chan said tourist arrivals in Sabah until August this year remained strong at about 2.5 million, compared to 2.4 million in the same period last year. This was an increase of over 5%, he said.

Of the 2.5 million, he said, China continued to top total arrivals as well as arrivals from Northeast Asia with 417,574 visitors to Sabah in the first eight months against 296,441 for the same period in 2017.

This was closely followed by South Korea, which registered over 218,000 arrivals as of August this year.

Sabah Hotel Association immediate past president Christopher Chan.

“But from our observations, there has been a slight drop of 10-20% in arrivals from China,” Chan said, adding that there had been fewer tourists in Sabah than in previous months.

He gave the example of the situation at Gaya Street, the central business district of Kota Kinabalu, where his office is located.

Gaya Street has traditionally been a hive for tourism activities with plenty of lodgings, entertainment outlets and souvenir shops.

Chan said he had observed a slight drop since the beginning of the month but acknowledged that he had no official data to support this.

He said the Golden Week might have been a factor, along with economic reasons and the US-China trade war, adding however that more convincing data was needed for any real conclusion.

In terms of composition of Chinese tourists, he said, those from central and southern China were more likely to visit Sabah than those from Beijing and Shanghai.

“We have trouble attracting those from main cities like Shanghai and Beijing,” he said.

“We have no theme parks or big shopping malls, and our entertainment spots are nowhere near to what those cities have, so we have nothing to offer.”

However, he said there was still time before the end of the year, adding that China’s consulate-general in Sabah was trying to get more Chinese tourists to visit the state.

He also noted that Xiamen Air was planning to resume flights from Beijing to Kota Kinabalu soon.

Checks at popular tourist spots in the city such as the Filipino market and seafood eateries found fewer tourists from China than there had been before.

A restaurant captain at an eatery here who declined to be named said his shop was usually filled with tourists at dinner time, particularly those from China. However, he said, there had been a sudden lull since the beginning of the month.

He said Chinese tourists were now fewer in number, and that their accents showed they did not come from Beijing or Shanghai.

“I also heard rumours that Chinese nationals were told to travel elsewhere instead of Malaysia because our government cancelled some big Chinese projects, but those are just things I hear,” he said, joking that he and staff now had some time to relax.

A sales manager at a five-star resort here said her establishment had experienced a 35% drop in occupancy involving Chinese tourists compared to the third and fourth quarters last year.

She too said most of the Chinese tourists who came to Sabah were from cities other than Shanghai or Beijing, adding that such visitors preferred to stay at three- or four-star hotels.

“And it’s much cheaper for them to fly to destinations like Vietnam or Phuket than Kota Kinabalu. That is also a factor for the drop.”

Even those who came to Sabah on a one-off basis often did not return for a long time as there was nothing for them to do there, she said.