Good roads, internet must for success
Published on: Sunday, December 31, 2017
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MALAYSIAN Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang believes the Government drive to focus on rural tourism in country and in Sabah is a step in the right direction in view of many urbanites everywhere yearning for the therapeutic simple village life amid greenery that only a kampung can provide."It cannot be denied that rural tourism empowers the rural community and brings economic benefits for them.

Although the income amount (at present) is still considered small but it means a lot to the villagers," he said.

Tan notes that at the moment not many tour operators in the state are involved in rural tourism.

"This is simply due to there currently having not many offerings in rural tourism packages coupled with challenges such as lack of basic infrastructure and support services.

Tan said rural tourism in Sabah started getting serious in 2014 with a much more integrated and focus initiative by Sabah Tourism Board, travel agents are beginning to see the potential for business opportunities.

The focus then was on Kiulu and Kadamaian, Kota Belud.

"Nowadays the rural tourism awareness has spread to include Ranau/Kundasang, Keningau , Tenom, Kinabatangan, Kudat and Kota Marudu."

He doesn't have the exact figure but estimates about 10 per cent of Matta Sabah's 500 members are involved in the State rural tourism industry.

"Although Rural Tourism or community-based tourism aka Homestays have been around since 2000 the revenue generated is not significant compared to the overall tourism receipts.

"The national revenue from homestay tourism in 2014 was RM 23.3 million and it currently contributes about one percent to Malaysia's tourism revenue."

The same is true also for the State, Tan said with Homestays in Sabah also estimated to currently contribute about one per cent of the State's tourism income.

Tan admitted that he himself as a tour operator in the past was not too keen to get involved in rural tourism despite the government asking him to consider it.

"As a tour operator then I was asked why I only concentrated on tours in the City and its outlying areas rather than going into the rural areas. The reason was because of the road system and its conditions then.

"Going to the rural areas from the cities was usually a long distance affair. For example the road to Kudat in the past also was full of holes and if anything were to happen along the way because the state of the rural roads (then), tourists will definitely be unhappy with the product and I will be the one in trouble.

"Same case also with the Murut Cultural Centre in Tenom, a wonderful place to bring tourists to but the journey is long and there is a lack of support facilities .

"So rather than risk it, it was better that I play it safe and sell those product tours that can guarantee an acceptable service level.

Tan said he was elated that the State government was channelling its efforts and funds for infrastructure development to boost rural tourism and congratulated them on the move to focus on rural tourism.

He said the state government efforts under the leadership of Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman to develop infrastructure development in the state to help boost rural tourism with an additional allocation of RM15 million in the State budget for rural tourism would mean tourism development in the state is set to grow at the right trajectory.

"The focus on rural tourism is also timely as some popular spot are reaching saturation point with the number of tourist arrivals.

"To ensure their sustainability tourists need to be diverted to new attractions which are also needed to draw repeat visitors," he said.

Tan said with more and flights coming into Sabah, it would mean better connectivity internationally and potential for more tourists to come to the State.

"Batik Air from Indonesia came in a few days ago, next year Xiamen Air will also be connecting Sabah to China, running daily flights from Beijing to Kota Kinabalu.

"So again what the government has done in focusing on and promoting rural tourism is correct.

"Doing so will also take the tourist pressure off urban areas like Kota Kinabalu and making tourism sustainable and benefitting a broader range of the community."

Tan said one of the important points to consider when talking about developing rural tourism in the State was internet accessibility where tourists want to stay connected.

"When you go to any country after you touch down, what is one of the first things you do normally?

You would switch on your smartphone and look for a wifi signal right?

"Gone are the days when people travel to a far away place to get away from it all and be by themselves.

"These days most people want to be connected to their business, family and friends. They want to post to social media, 'I am here now'.

On that note he said he was made to understand that the State has a budget on ICT.

"There is also a national budget on this matter. The federal government I was made to understand has also given the State quite a large sum for communications, power and so on. So I feel this can only be a good thing towards the development of better ICT facilities in the State."

On the types of rural tourism products in the State, Tan said rural tourism players must also think about always improving their product offerings and also the variety of their products offered.

"For example Kadamaian, Kota Belud I was made to understand had managed to establish more than 20 rural tourism products last year ranging from lung washing, adventure, culture, handicraft and education tourism in Kadamaian and this year it seems it has doubled to 40 rural tourism products already generating approximately RM500,000 from the 50,000 visitors (foreign and domestic).

"The RM500,000 was directly earned by the communities from the sales of tourism packages and others.

This is a good thing that can definitely be improved and expand on to include agro tourism and edu-tourism for example.

"One of the ways this can be done for example is by simple means such as putting signages explaining the attraction there or putting up direction signages as well, perhaps maybe even nice pavements and paths to attractions, a scenic camping site or two."

Tan said tourism numbers for homestay and rural tourism activities in Sabah's was currently 80 per cent domestic and 20 per cent foreign visitors but said in the future this will definitely change with more foreign tourist arrivals.

"Ideally in the future it should be more towards 60 per cent locals and 40 per cent foreign visitors but as far as tourism receipts (money coming in) are concerned, it matters not whether its from local or foreign tourists."

Tan said there were many challenges for rural homestay programme in the State.

These include a lack of or poor internet facilities and connectivity. There may also be issues with language and communication issue, customer service issues , toilets, food preparation and hygiene among others.

"But the tourist are still interested because its different, it's a lifestyle experience for them.

"When you talk about taking people to see the paddy fields in the villages for example, the tourist will be excited because they get to see, smell and touch the environment around them in the paddy fields.

"It's the same experience for them when they experience how to tap the rubber trees, all this is something new for them. The homestay programme attracts tourist with a certain demographic profile who desire authentic experiences on the local lifestyle and culture of local people.

"So yes there is a market for all this but more importantly is how do you market it.

For most rural communities its obvious its hard for them by themselves to go to Europe for example to market their tourism product because of the costs involved.

"Hence the importance of these rural tourism communities working closely with tour operators to bring the tourists in.

"They also need dedicated websites to market their rural tourism. I believe Sabah tourism also has a dedicated website for this. Then another thing they have to think about how to drive the traffic in.

So you see its all about the marketing of the product.

"That is although it has been a slow start in the State but I feel the renewed focus on rural tourism is the right direction for the State government otherwise the benefit is only felt for urban people and tour operators in the urban areas.

"I believed that if they (all players in the State) can get their act together including a good road system by the government, all players involved in marketing the rural tourism product and importantly good internet connectivity/facilities State wide then I see it as a good way forward for the rural tourism industry."

Tan said nowadays people including the young generation and school groups are also into projects that involve volunteer-tourism or 'volunteerism', where they can do something good for or 'give back' to the community while also engaging in tourism.

"With volunteerism, they have a different experience where they can go back home and feel good that that they done something good other than just visiting."

Tan also believed that rural tourism when done right in the State can appeal to the Chinese Market despite the current perception of them only being interested in shopping, cool climate and distance from city/airport.

"You have to have the right product mix. For the China market it first depends on location.

If you talk about Kota Belud, Kiulu and Kundasang it is possible.

He said all stakeholders including the private sector and government should work together to appeal to and attract them at these locations.

"For example you can set up some tourism oriented shops in Kiulu, on in Kota Belud and Kundasang including souvenir and local handicraft shops. Another idea is for someone entrepreneurial to set up a Bah Kut Teh (a meat based herbal soup dish that is very popular with Chinese tourists) stall to offer it (Bah Kut Teh) to them there.

"For example in Kiulu, why not have a Bah Kut Teh stall there so that when Chinese tourists finish their rafting they have a choice to taste it. When they look they will be amazed as Its definitely something different right, other that the usual BBQ chicken wings, fruits and fried noodles spread.

"Well why not, its something to offer them other than the Chinese tourists only queuing up to eat it at the Gaya Street shops in Kota Kinabalu.

"So again the right mix for the Chinese is the right infrastructure, things they like to see, eat and buy.

"If you have all this then yes I am 100 percent sure that done right, rural tourism in the State can indeed appeal to the Chinese market."

Tan said another important point to consider is the packaging of local rural products and handicrafts is also important in order to appeal to all visitors, not only the Chinese visitors.

"If you go to Kadaiku shop at Seri Pelancongan (a wholly owned subsidiary of Sabah Tourism Board which focuses are in the areas of event organisation, communications via publicity and publications and the promotion, supply and sale of local handicrafts), you will see they have also repackaged some of their handicraft products to be more attractive to tourists to help support the local community.

"We must give tourist something that is convenient and easy for them to carry back.

We cannot give them a big bottle of lihing (Sabahan traditional sweet rice wine) to carry for example as it will be inconvenient to carry back.

"We need a small convenient bottle that is easy for them to carry. Same with the other tourism products from the rural areas. At the end of the day it all boils down to your entrepreneurial skill."

"In this regard rural tourism players can work with SME Corp or other government agencies where these agencies can teach them and give funds to help them repackage their local products for the tourism market.

"So many things can be done to improve the local products so they can appeal more to the international tourist market." - Neil Chan


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