Although lacking direct flights from China, Sarawak could see Chinese inbound tourism take off thanks to new major incentives and partnerships.
The Chinese market is still under-tapped for Sarawak; Mulu National Park’s Deer Cave pictured
Being a relatively late entrant in courting the high-growth China market, Sarawak is playing catch up with other destinations in Malaysia through major tourism partnerships and incentives targeting the Chinese.
As the top medium-haul market, arrivals from China to Malaysia reached a record 2.1 million tourists last year, yet only 38,345 Chinese tourists visited Sarawak. China as a visitor source market ranked fourth for Sarawak, after Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.
In the absence of scheduled direct services from China, the state government of Sarawak began offering a free-entry pass for Chinese tourists travelling to the state directly from China on October 30, 2016.
This is to encourage charter services from China to offer connections and provide alternative access to Chinese tourists who use Kuala Lumpur as the main gateway, for whom a single-entry e-visa for up to 30 days costs US$25.
Prior to this development, Chinese tourists visiting Sarawak had to connect through Kuala Lumpur or Kota Kinabalu, making it a challenge to sell the destination to budget-conscious travellers who would favour combining Kuala Lumpur with Langkawi, Penang, Malacca or Johor to avoid additional flight costs, according to Mint Leong, managing director of Sunflower Holidays.
Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) has signed MoU with three charter operators in Wuhan, which will also see the board assist in itinerary planning and fam trips for the media and bloggers.
The NTO is also promoting the destination through consumer advertising and B2B roadshows in China’s first-tier cities, as well as increasing visibility through film tourism with the Filming Support Unit – set up earlier this year – to process film permits from international production houses.
A 100-minute Chinese movie Blue Tears was released in May, with scenes shot in Miri featuring the beach, longhouses and Mulu National Caves.
Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC) recently entered into an MoU with international Chinese tourism development company, Beijing Glory International Culture Development, to develop the state’s tourism potential and hospitality management.
Under the agreement, Beijing Glory will manage two SEDC hotels, Damai Puri and Grand Margherita, take over the management of tourist attractions such as Bako and Mulu National Park, and make Kuching the South-east Asian hub for China Express Airline.
Gracie Geikie, director of Planet Borneo Consultants, is also providing consultation to a large conglomerate in China looking to develop a retirement village in Kuching comprising recreational facilities and a specialist centre. Once completed in three years’ time, it is expected to attract senior travellers from China.
Meanwhile, the growing force of Chinese FITs and their increasing thirst for diverse travel experiences stand Sarawak in good stead to court this burgeoning market.
“We see two types of Chinese FIT profiles. There are some who extend their stay in Sarawak for three or four days and experience the local food, city, heritage sites and culture,” observed Leong.
The second segment comprises “special interest travellers” who stay longer and seek activities ranging from diving and deep sea fishing off Miri, to visiting longhouses and birdwatching. These are typically millennial travellers who travel in small groups of less than six, she added.
But for Kuching-based Bel-Air Travel and Tours, arrivals from China dropped 30 per cent in the wake of the MH370 incident in 2014, and Hong Kong Airlines’ abrupt suspension of service to Kuching in February after launching in May 2016 further dented its Chinese FIT business – not just from Hong Kong but also from Shenzhen and Guangzhou, said managing director Alice Khor.
She added: “The main challenge in attracting the Chinese market (to Sarawak) is the lack of good beaches and beach activities, which is why the Chinese prefer Sabah.”
However, the opening of Borneo Samariang Resort City, a 202ha integrated resort featuring a water park, safari and 1,000-room hotel will attract more family travellers from South-east Asia and China to Sarawak, Khor said.
Sarawak’s potential to attract the China market has not gone unnoticed by Bandar Seri Begawan-based Freme Travel, which started to package Brunei with Miri early this year to leverage the free-entry pass that also applies to Chinese tourists entering Sarawak overland from Brunei.
Said Sugumaran Nair, manager, inbound & MICE division: “We are encouraged that agents from Shanghai are selling Brunei-Miri combinations, which showcase the cultural aspects of Brunei, and nature tours to Niah Caves and Mulu National Park in Sarawak.”
This article was first published in TTG Asia August 2017 issue. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.