Security fears turn away tourists from Sabah’s east coast

Sabah Tourism Board Senior Research Manager Angeline Engchuan (left).

KOTA KINABALU: Constant threats of kidnappings along Sabah’s east coast have caused tourist arrivals from countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Japan to stagnate, a tourism official said today.

Sabah Tourism Board senior research manager Angeline Engchuan told a seminar on security issues here that the cautionary travel advisories issued by several countries had made travel agents reluctant to promote tour packages to Sabah’s east coast .

“Research carried out on some 5,000 tourists showed that 37% came here because of the beaches and islands, 32% because of our nature, 13% for the adventure while 11% came for our diving spots.

“Most of our beaches and islands are on the east coast. So is our nature, such as in Kinabatangan. When something happens in the east coast, tourists cancel their plans,” she said.

Engchuan said a dent in the tourism industry could have huge repercussions to Sabah’s economy especially as the industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past decade.

Currently, she said the hotel industry alone provided more than 17,000 jobs in Sabah.

In its efforts to sustain the tourism industry without relying too heavily on beaches and islands, Engchuan said the STB had implemented community projects. The ones in Kota Belud generated RM1.5 million in revenue directly for the community last year.

“Maybe this number is not big, but it benefits the local communities in ways you could not imagine,” she said.

This approach is targeted largely towards Japanese tourists as their government has issued a Level 3 cautionary travel advisory. At this level, tourists are advised to totally avoid travelling to Sabah’s east coast due to serious risks to safety and security.

She said the board is continuing to promote the east coast to free independent travellers as they are less particular about advisories.

The STB is also in constant contact with foreign embassies to give them confidence in Sabah’s security. “But at the same time, we also understand their concern. I mean, we keep saying the situation is under control and we are safe, yet at the same time, the curfew is ongoing and has been extended for five years,” she said.

Engchuan said the STB had invited several embassies to come and assess the situation so that they would consider lowering or removing the level of travel advisory for Sabah’s east coast.

Engchuan said this year, Sabah is hoping to attract four million tourists, having drawn 3.88 million who brought in RM8.3 billion in tourism receipts last year.

The majority of international tourists in Sabah are from China and South Korea with the numbers increasing every year.

The impact of security threats has been minimal on these tourists except between May 2014 and June 2015 when MH370 went missing and there were several kidnapping incidents in Sabah.