KOTA KINABALU: The federal government has approved RM80.9 million to upgrade the Sandakan airport in a bid to enhance the economy and tourism sector in Sabah’s east coast.
Speaking during a groundbreaking ceremony in Sandakan today, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng hoped this allocation would enable Sandakan to become the “Gateway to East Malaysia”.
“The Pakatan Harapan government gives emphasis to tourism development in Sabah – for the first time ever, a (federal) tourism minister is from Sabah.
“In the 2020 Budget, the federal government allocated RM1.1 billion to the tourism, arts and culture ministry, which is 6% higher compared to the previous budget, to realise the Visit Malaysia 2020.
“Hopefully the upgrading of the Sandakan airport will help increase the country’s competitiveness among the other nations in our region. This will allow more people to enjoy Malaysia, particularly Sabah,” he said.
Earlier, Transport Minister Loke Siew Fook said the upgrading work would also involve improvements to the radar system and the extension of the Sandakan airport runway from 2,133m to 2,500m.
“When the expansion is completed by 2021, bigger planes will be able to land comfortably here,” he said.
In thanking the federal government, Chief Minister Shafie Apdal said this was a pledge made by the government during the Sandakan by-election last May.
He said the federal finance and tourism ministries were also looking at upgrading the Tawau airport, including placing freezing facilities for seafood products.
“So the upgrades in Sandakan and (eventually) Tawau will not only spur the tourism sector but also other industries like the seafood sector.
“Investors will come to Sabah when such facilities are available here,” he said, adding that he had also spoken to other states on having direct flights to Sandakan and Tawau.
Loke said at the moment, most of the direct flights to Sabah from other states and countries usually come to the state capital.
“Flights to Sandakan and Tawau have to go through Kota Kinabalu first. But if there are better facilities and runways, we hope we can have direct flights from, for instance, Sandakan to Hong Kong and Tawau to China.
“These are among the countries that have a high demand for seafood products, especially from Sabah’s east coast,” he said.
He added that logistics companies had been urged to invest more, particularly in Sandakan and Tawau.
Meanwhile, on suggestions for a new airport for Kota Kinabalu, Lim said there was still room for expansion at the existing Kota Kinabalu International Airport.
“To construct a new one involves high costs and will take some time. Upgrading the present one will be faster.
“Sandakan is just a start as it will be followed by KK and Tawau,” he said.