Sabah hotels find novel ways to fight slump caused by coronavirus

A big chunk of tourists in Sabah come from China, and their absence in the wake of the coronavirus travel ban has forced hoteliers in Kota Kinabalu to offer huge discounts.

KOTA KINABALU: Hotels in Sabah have creatively exploited the drop in tourism following the coronavirus scare by coming up with attractive travel packages which include half-price for their room rates.

Checks show that scores of hotels, including five-star resorts, are offering attractive packages as they struggle to make up for the drop in sales.

With airlines offering eye-popping fares for flights to encourage domestic travel, it may be the opportune time to go on holiday.

Sabah and Labuan Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) chairman Gordon Seet said due to the coronavirus, hotels here had experienced a sharp decline in bookings.

“As such, city hotels and resorts are now seeking to drive more domestic travel within Sabah and Sarawak, and from West Malaysia and Brunei, by offering irresistible rates during this period.

“And yes, it would be the best time to travel as our airlines are offering tickets at irresistible prices as well for destinations within Malaysia and the region. Leisure and business travellers can and should grab this opportunity,” he told FMT.

Seet said the hotel industry in Sabah was only second to Kuala Lumpur in being impacted by booking cancellations, with losses of over RM10 million as of last week.

He said most of the cancellations were from China after the country suspended all tour groups and sale of flights or hotel packages for its citizens headed overseas on Jan 26.

This is coupled with the travel ban imposed by the Sabah government on all flights from China starting Jan 31. It further imposed a full travel ban on Chinese nationals from Feb 8.

High-end resorts such as Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa (STAR) in Tanjung Aru here are offering guestrooms, which normally start at a minimum of RM800, for RM499 until March 31.

The Nexus Karambunai, a beachside getaway in Sepanggar near here, is offering RM288 for a minimum of two nights stay.

Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort in Tuaran meanwhile is offering rooms from RM498, with a 3pm-checkout guaranteed and guests entitled to a “Buy 1 Free 1” dinner buffet.

Sutera Harbour’s Pacific Sutera and Magellan hotels are offering rooms at a cut price of RM350 and RM450, from RM535 and RM705 previously.

Shangri-La’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa general manager Timothy Sainsbury said it is still too early to predict the full impact of the coronavirus on the hotel industry.

“Our priority right now is to ensure the health and wellbeing of our guests and employees,” he told FMT.

Meanwhile, economist Firdausi Suffian said Sabah’s economy could take a hit from the current tourism slump caused by coronavirus.

He said the state went through a similar experience during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2005, affecting the tourism sector for three to four months that year.

“If you go to downtown Kota Kinabalu now, it’s almost empty compared to many tourists walking about in the city before. So it is understandable the hotels and tour operators are promoting incentive and cheap packages.

“But the question remains whether, despite the attractive packages, people will travel because many are cautious of the coronavirus – no vaccine is in sight and the death toll is rising,” he said.

More than 70% of Sabah’s tourists come from northeast Asia, half of whom are from China.

Firdausi said while big hotels could withstand a slump for up to six months, smaller ones could struggle to keep afloat if the situation persisted longer.

“I’ve not heard of lay-offs for now but some tour operators in Sabah have resorted to giving their staff unpaid leave,” he added.

He said the coronavirus episode also showed that Sabah has an over-dependence on the tourism sector.