'Miami Beach', casino cruises and iconic drawbridge: Terengganu banks on tourism industry to spur development
As one of Malaysia’s underdeveloped states, Terengganu is now rolling out the welcome mat for foreigners to enjoy its pristine waters and invest in its energy sector.
KUALA TERENGGANU: His friends and family back home in Beijing were donning layers of clothes in anticipation of early winter. But Mr Wei Yu-Min was in a singlet, shorts and flip flops, holidaying more than 4,000 km away in the Malaysian city of Kuala Terengganu.
The 29-year-old was standing in front of the city’s newest attraction - the Kuala Terengganu drawbridge. He was snapping selfies with the 16-storey tall structure in the background, before posting them online.
“It’s a nice bridge. Even in China, it’s hard to find something like this,” said Mr Wei.
He then walked across the bridge, which spanned around 600 metres, to another new attraction in the city, the Hulu Takir beach. This beach is more popularly known among locals as “Miami Beach”, due to its resemblance to the well known Florida attraction.
Mr Wei was again impressed. He snapped more photos, and took a while to stretch his legs and enjoy the view, as fishermen nearby greeted him with a nod.
He had travelled all this way to head to Pulau Redang for a diving trip.
Pulau Redang, just off Kuala Terengganu, as well as the Perhentian islands to the north, are home to some of the world’s top-ranked dive and snorkel sites.
Once a sleepy town known merely as a pit stop for visitors taking ferries to offshore resort islands, Kuala Terengganu has recently developed more tourism offerings in hope of being a destination in itself. It is also gearing up to attract more foreign investors.
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In an interview with CNA, Mr Ariffin Deraman, Terengganu’s executive council chairman for tourism, culture and information technology said: "Tourism benefits the locals directly."
"More tourists mean more jobs, local businesses thrive and income rises. I think it’s important for Terengganu that tourists keep coming.”
As part of the state’s tourism strategic plan, Mr Ariffin is targeting 6.5 million inbound tourists annually from the year 2025 onwards. Thus will be 35 per cent more than the 4.79 million tourists arrivals recorded in 2018.
PAS GOVERNMENT WILL NOT OPPOSE GAMBLING, ALCOHOL ON CRUISES
To help meet this objective, Mr Ariffin said the government is planning to allow holiday cruises from neighbouring cities to stop by the state.
He said that the state government is currently in discussion with luxury cruise operator Seabourn Cruise Line, as well as other cruise operators he did not identify, to make Terengganu a stop in their voyages from Singapore.
He noted that many cruises from Singapore pass through the port city of Klang, on the west coast of peninsula Malaysia. However, he wants Terengganu to offer cruise operators as “a viable alternative” on the east coast, especially those heading from Singapore towards Thailand, Myanmar and Macau.
“We are working towards allowing these cruises to stop by Terengganu, and the passengers to visit us. By 2021, god willing, this will be allowed,” he said.
The move would be a departure from the state government's religious stance, considering that many of the cruises have casinos – and gambling is illegal in Terengganu.
However, Mr Ariffin said that the state leaders – all of whom are from the Islamic party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) – have made their assessment and will approve the cruises to stop by Terengganu for a period of six to eight hours.
“The cruises are passing by to explore the beauty of Terengganu. So what happens inside, like casino or alcohol consumption that are against Islam, it’s not really our concern. I personally don’t think it’s a problem,” said the Alor Limbat assemblyman.
“We have received word that there is no opposition for cruises to come. To use an analogy, if a traveller drives pass Terengganu and stops by a stall to buy some banana fritters while drinking a bottle of wine in his car, the sale is fine,” he said.
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FOREIGN INVESTMENT TO FUND GOVERNMENT PROJECTS
Besides tourism, the Terengganu state government is also opening its doors to foreign investment, said the state’s trade, industrial, regional development and administrative wellbeing executive committee chairman Tengku Hassan Tengku Omar.
He explained that the state was in need of its own investment to fund its own projects and state expenses. This is in spite of Terengganu receiving RM1.27 billion (US$306 million) in 2019 in oil royalty from the federal government, as announced by the state’s chief minister Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar in October.
These payments, widely called oil royalties, are paid to states from which the federal government, through national oil firm Petronas, extracts oil, gas and other petroleum products offshore.
Handing out oil royalties is a departure from the previous federal government's practice of blocking such payments to opposition-controlled states.
The amount Terengganu has received in 2019 is more than five per cent of the annual value of petroleum deposits extracted off the hydrocarbon-rich state.
However, Tengku Hassan clarified that the money will have to be used for deferred or scheduled payments for the state’s projects, such as the Kuala Terengganu Drawbridge, a new district at Kuala Nerus as well as a water supply venture in the state’s capital.
“It’s quite a difficult time for us because we have to pay for more stuff that we have committed to, including more upcoming projects. Some of the projects we think shouldn’t be there in the first place but it was commissioned and have been constructed,” said the Ladang state assemblyman.
In order to build up their own capital to govern the state, Tengku Hassan said that he has conducted discussions with foreign investors to pump their money into Terengganu.
He cited an ongoing discussion with an unidentified Dutch oil and gas firm to invest between RM3 billion and RM4 billion for a project in the state.
He added that the state has approved a luxury hotel chain from Europe to open a high-end resort near Pulau Redang. Tengku Hassan said no major announcement has been done, but he confirmed that the resort will attract high net worth tourists who are part of a “prestigious international club”.
He added that the investments would ultimately benefit the state, but he warned that it would be some time before these projects would come to fruition.
“These are projects that may take five years to materialise. It will take time for us to plan, commission, and execute. But it’s important for Terengganu because it gives our people jobs and money for the government to fund our projects,” said Tengku Hassan.
SOME LOCALS WARY OF FOREIGNERS INFLUX
Although the state government has recognised the importance of foreign investment, some locals interviewed by CNA have expressed concern about the influx of visitors.
A dive instructor from Pulau Redang who declined to be named told CNA that many of his clients, some of whom were from China, dived irresponsibly and would step on and kick corals.
“They do it repeatedly despite being warned by us not to before the dives. Some of the damage done to corals is irreparable,” he said.
“They paid to dive here, but they did not pay for the right to destroy our corals,” he stated.
Another resident, Mr Khairul Anwar Muhd Halim told CNA that inviting foreign companies to invest in oil and gas projects could mean an influx of foreign engineers and labourers to the state. He said it would be more beneficial for locals if the projects were awarded to Malaysian corporations instead.
“Local corporations like Petronas, for example, are more likely to hire the people living in the area. So people in Terengganu will be able to find employment and benefit directly,” said Mr Khairul Anwar.
However, Mr Ariffin, the assemblyman maintained that locals should be “more welcoming” to foreign visitors and not be xenophobic.
“If foreigners damage our corals, they will be punished. Overall, the visitors have been fine, but if individuals misbehave, it’s normal I think. But we as locals should attempt to explain to them and educate them,” he said.
Tengku Hassan added that the state government will work to ensure that foreign corporations who win projects will hire locals.
“(Ensuring jobs go to our locals) is part of our conditions and requirements during the discussion phase with the companies. It’s important that we prioritise our own people,” he said.