Don’t bring back the ‘old normal’ to Sabah tourism

In 2018, Sabah’s tourism industry recorded its highest receipts in history at RM8.342 billion, with a record high 3.879 million arrivals, mostly from China and Korea.

Some experts have predicted it will take at least two years before the market recovers. Whatever time estimates given, it should be interpreted with caution in view of the magnitude, volatility and unprecedented nature of Covid-19.

SARS and the 2009 global economic crisis are good references, but there are no comparisons with the current pandemic which kills people at a rapid rate and batters the economy.

Everyone is eager to open their tourism markets as quickly as possible. But the world can only get back to normal, a new normal, when a new vaccine is developed to combat Covid-19.

Sabah tourism hasn’t been spared. Much money has been invested by Sabah’s tourism industry players and everyone involved in the chain – from tour operators, hotels, to boatman and restaurant workers – benefitted.

Apart from asking for a lifeline from the government and financial institutions to ride out the crisis, and waiting for the crisis to be over, it’s a good time for industry players to take stock of the situation and see how they can prepare for a “new normal” post Covid-19.

Sabah Tourism (STB) has branded “Enchanting Sabah” as an ecotourism destination but an October 2019 article in an international daily posed questions as to whether the Chinese tourist boom will kill Sabah’s nature attractions.

One man who operates several nature lodges was quoted as saying the main interest of urban Chinese was “sea, sand and beaches plus shopping, not wildlife and nature”.

There seems to be a disconnect between STB’s “eco” branding and the Chinese tourists’ preferences.

Mass tourism is not sustainable in the long run. We should learn lessons from Boracay Island in the Philippines and Phi Phi Leh island in Thailand which have experienced forced closures in order to let these islands breathe and recover.

More needs to be done to ensure eco-tourism becomes a winner. More enforcement should be planned to curb drift net fishing, fish bombing and anchor damage to corals by boats, as this is still rampant.

The number of tourists visiting the islands daily must be limited to avoid further environmental damage. Development has overtaken the need to care for the environment. Anyone who raises concerns about development projects for environmental reasons or expresses concerns of local communities is labelled as being “against” progress.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of our dysfunctional relationship with nature.

A World Economic Forum Report states Covid-19 and nature are linked, and so should be the recovery. Studies show deforestation and loss of wildlife cause increases in infectious diseases. Nature is biting us back hard.

Kota Kinabalu is facing overbuilding, especially at the seafront. Poor planning and the absence of a reliable public transportation system has led to massive traffic jams.

The fast paced over-development is stretching electricity and water supplies and sanitary facilities. More and more hotels and condominiums are springing up in every corner of Kota Kinabalu. A property report in January said the outlook will remain challenging as supply continues to dwarf demand going forward.

As developers continue to launch new properties to keep their business operations going, the number of unsold units under construction is expected to add to the already high inventory levels of completed projects.

Waste disposal is another major issue. There is no rubbish collection on the islands and everything is dumped into the sea. Tourists see the rubbish floating at the jetty or when they swim off one of the islands or high-end resorts.

This gives a bad impression to visitors. Until now there has been no concerted effort to halt single use plastic in Sabah or a proper waste disposal mechanism along the shorelines.

On the animal conservation side, more and more reports are coming in of the Pygmy elephants being poisoned but very few culprits have been brought to book.

We have seen the extinction of the Sumatran Rhino in our lifetime and we don’t want to see another animal species going extinct. The fight between oil palm estates and Pygmy elephants will not end unless the authorities are serious in tackling the issue.

Right now, the lack of polluting activity has been a blessing for the environment and Sabah should capitalise on it.

Sabah tourism can emphasise the “eco” part if it spends more effort in taking care of the environment. If ecotourism is the branding, the tourism players must put the environment first and not last. The new normal should not see a repeat of the old normal.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Fake or not? Check our quick fake news buster here.