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The Musa-Kah Kiat tourism partnership success
Published on: Sunday, April 29, 2018

By Datuk John Lo

The success of Sabah’s tourism industry is written all over. The arrival number has been growing, is growing and will continue to do so.

Like many successful countries/places, such as Singapore, Australia, NZ and China, tourism will become an anchor industry in Sabah’s economic life if we can continue to have quality economic leadership to continue steering this industry in the right direction.

It is my contention that tourism potentials for Sabah has a long way to go and will become the major source of revenue, investment, business opportunities jobs and above all, jobs for Sabah’s Y generations.

Very good example is four graduates of ATI International College who, immediately after graduation and armed with youthful confidence and knowing there is future in the tourism industry, started “The Damn Good Burgers” restaurant.

It is where you can find really good tasty burgers in KK. They may have to struggle for a while but they are doing it in a positive, conducive economic environment, knowing that tourism is booming.

Then there is this couple, both used to work in banking, took the plunge, resigned from their jobs to start their business, opened a shop in KK selling tourism stuff. This young couple is now earning more than their banking jobs, more importantly, they have become their own bosses. They are in control of their fate!

Many Sabahans have found success in big and small hotels, restaurants, and tour operators. Many others have got rewarding jobs in hotels, airlines, as tour guides and so on [too many to be listed here].

I would venture to estimate that there may be one in every 10 Sabahans in KK benefiting from the booming tourism industry directly or indirectly or one time or another.

Figuratively speaking, we have only reached 2nd or 3rd floor. The top floor may be 100 floors up! Now we have several million arrivals, tourism receipts at RM7.5 billion.

Tens of thousands of jobs and billions of investments in hotels and tourism facilities.

It is not unimaginable that these can be double or even triple within the next 10 to 15 years.


When I saw Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat shaking hands with Tan Sri Musa Aman in the newspapers reminded me of the early days when Sabah was fighting to establish as a regional tourism player.

These two Tan Sris’ leaderships and visions have played crucial roles in getting the industry to what it is today.

Lest we forget, today’s success is no accident.

Many things have to come together–vision, determination and above all, economic leadership and political will.

The tourism success seedling, I can well remember was planted by Chong as Sabah Tourism Minister.

He would personally seek the support of foreign major tour operators/supporters in their offices, went down to talk to their frontline staff in his promotion trips, he made us work from 8 am to 12 mid-night!

Took keen interest in all foreign promotion trips to ensure their success and would together with Puan Sri, welcome and bid farewell all the guests at the door.

He held on to the Tourism Ministry when he was the CM to ensure its growth and continued when Musa took over the Chief Ministership.

Sabah’s biggest problem was air connectivity. MAS was incapable of bringing tourists in big numbers but adamantly wanting to be the “dog in the manger” refused to let other airlines in.

The breakthrough came when Chong managed to convince Tun Mahathir to allow us to brief him of Sabah’s air connectivity related problems in 1999.

Tun M allowed us to give two presentations, one in KK and another one soon after that, in his office when I presented Sabah’s case to the M10.

Tun M approved “open sky” for KKIA, Kuching, Langkawi and Penang a few days after the briefing in his office.

He also ended MAS’s monopoly and strangle hold on Sabah’s tourism growth.

Musa, being savvy in business and having achieved great success in the private sector prior to joining active politics, incorporated tourism as one of the economic pillars in his economic vision of Halajutu.

He must have seen the potential of tourism. As CM, he provided the vital economic leadership and unprecedented sizeable budget allocations for tourism development and promotion every year since 2003.

This money he has used most effectively to encourage more airlines to come to KK by subsidising their landing fees. His focus was China and Korea. The airlines took his bait – and the rest, like they say, is history!

This has paid off much better than expected for Sabah. Having a keen eye on value added opportunities, he proceeded to push for MICE tourism and convinced PM to give huge launching grants for TAED and SICC, both of which will assist Sabah in our quest for high end tourism.

We have joked, some even derided, disparaged a few Chinese tourists drying their clothes in the street.

Let us not let this attitude get out of hand. Doing this sort of thing is only a very small minority.

To put it in the right perspective, Chinese tourists are by far the biggest number [Koreans a distant second].

The Chinese are the largest spenders. They packed all our hotels including 5 and 6-star resorts, creating jobs and business opportunities for ordinary Sabahans.

Another area that Musa is eyeing is very exciting. With more flights coming in from diverse countries, higher end tourists and the present medical facilities available in KK, it is timely for the establishment of medical tourism.

Medical tourism can be very lucrative and can attract many Sabahan returnee medical specialists who are in practice outside. Experience in other places indicate receipts from medical tourism can be 5 to 10 times more than ordinary receipts from ordinary tourism.

Competing head on with KL and Singapore is unwise. But let this not deter us. With the right economic leadership, we can always find our niche market. Notwithstanding KKIA’s setbacks, it was nice for me to experience the sweet success in our tourism first hand.

I arrived from Melbourne, transiting in Brunei on 9th April at about 1 am. Please note it was 1 am in the morning.

All the aerobridges were occupied. The inside of the terminal was packed to the brink.

Both international and domestic immigration halls were used to expedite immigration clearance for foreign tourists. KKIA was really busy but our bags were there after immigration clearance. No waiting!

Which was a pleasant change. The immigration and customs officials I talked to told me this is happening every night! Obviously every one in KKIA has been working under tremendous pressure at handling the great numbers of tourists.

Sabah has become a huge draw for Chinese tourists. This I found out on my flight out to Singapore by Silk Air on 22nd April.

The flight was full and the majority of them were Chinese tourists. Naturally, I wanted to know their reasons for using Silk Air via Singapore when there are 100 direct flights from China to KKIA. Some said their tours to Singapore included KK.

Many others could not get seats in direct flights to KK. Their desire to visit Sabah was so great that they won’t mind extra cost, travel time of making the journey via Singapore. I could not believe our Sabah has become such a big attraction in China.

Reaching the tourism penthouse or 100th floor can be possible for Sabah for a good foundation has been laid by Chong and Musa. While endeavouring to reach to the top, the process will pose many difficulties from inside Sabah and competitive forces externally. Sabah must soonest possible, entrench ourselves as the undisputed gateway to E Malaysia, Borneo and beyond.

For Sabah to achieve further and higher economic growth, greater effective income for Sabahans through tourism and other industries, the importance of effective economic leadership from the CM after GE14 cannot be overemphasised. I am more worried as nomination and voting days approach, other CM aspirants have lost sight of what really matters-i.e. economic leadership.


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