PENGERANG, Johor: Mr Joseph Tan has not been to Desaru since 2009.
When the IT engineer from Singapore visited last month for a weekend retreat, he was surprised at how the place has been redeveloped with a chain of luxury hotels, a huge water theme park and golf courses.
“It’s unrecognisable,” said the 35-year-old. “It used to be just a dirty beach and deserted hotels. The place has a different vibe now.”
Since the 1970s, Desaru has been a popular tourist destination for Singaporeans. However, its star faded in recent years as the tourism infrastructure aged.
Over the last year, an integrated eco-entertainment development dubbed Desaru Coast was opened gradually, bringing hope that the area would be rejuvenated.
The project, worth RM2.7 billion (S$890 million), includes resorts like Hard Rock Hotel and The Westin, as well as the Adventure Waterpark. It also has the Els Club, two golf courses designed by legends of the game Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.
Mr Tan, who stayed for two nights at Hard Rock Hotel with his wife and young daughter, told CNA that the development caters to people with different interests.
“While I played golf, my wife brought our daughter to the adventure park. In the evening, we went to the beach to relax together. There are options for everyone,” said Mr Tan.
The Hard Rock Hotel has a modern-feel – it offers a music-centric spa where bass vibrations would ripple through the massage table, an in-room music programme as well as a Mexican-inspired poolside bar and grill restaurant.
The hotel is connected to the Adventure Waterpark, which has thrilling rides such as a vast tidal wave beach and a roller coaster with a 360-degree loop.
According to another Singapore visitor Mr Nasiruddin Mohd Syed, the theme park is worth the two-hour drive from his home in Ang Mo Kio, even for a day trip.
“The place is new, so the water is much cleaner than other water theme parks in Malaysia. It is also quite empty now that most people don’t know about it yet, but once it becomes popular, I expect it to be more crowded,” he added.
Beyond the attractions within Desaru Coast, visitors can also venture out slightly for mangrove tours at the nearby Panti Forest.
Desaru Coast told CNA that it was looking to offer more outdoor activities for its visitors, like ATV rides, mountain biking and nature walks.
Ms Liow Cai Tung, the Johor executive council member for tourism, told CNA that over the past year, Desaru Coast has received "a steady stream of visitors" from Indonesia, China and also Hong Kong. She expects more to come from Australia, Japan, Taiwan and the Middle East in the near future.
"We are aggressively promoting Desaru Coast as a packaged deal comprising hotels, theme park and other attractions. So we expect it to expand the tourism market (in Johor)," she said.
"I'm confident that people who are looking for a vacation away from the city, people who like sunsine and beach, will definitely choose Desaru as one of their destinations to visit," Ms Liow added.
For now, things appear to be looking up for Desaru as a tourist destination. But can this growth be sustained going forward?
Tourism planning expert Prof Amran Hamzah from University Teknologi Malaysia noted that Desaru is drawing crowds due to the "novelty factor”. Whether this is sustainable depends on how amenities and other attractions in the area are developed, he added.
“Hard Rock Hotel has been getting good occupancy rates because for anything that is brand new and viable, it will be able to attract patrons for the first two or three years. But for the medium or longer term, it depends on the product development,” he said.
FERRY SERVICES FROM SINGAPORE TO BE ENHANCED
One area that needs work is Desaru’s accessibility. To get to the resorts, most Singaporeans brave the congestion at the Woodlands Causeway, before taking the recently developed Senai-Desaru expressway.
A potentially more viable option would be a 30-minute ferry from Changi Point to Tanjung Belungkor, a remote terminal which is a 20-minute drive from Desaru Coast.
Currently, there are ferry services operated by Malaysian company Limbongan Maju. While the option enables visitors to skip the Causeway congestion, the ferries are infrequent and somewhat costly.
They operate twice daily on weekdays, departing Changi at 9.30am and 8pm. On weekends, there are four trips, departing Changi at 12.30pm and 5pm, in addition to the weekday timings. The fares are S$25 for one way and S$40 for return trip tickets.
For Singaporean visitors like Mr Nasiruddin, this is not very convenient. “Once you reach the ferry terminal, you have to take a taxi. You don’t have the freedom to drive around the area and explore. There are no (ride-hailing) services in the area so you have to rely on private taxis, those are not cheap,” said the 50-year-old insurance agent.
However, Ms Liow of the state exco highlighted that there are plans to develop a ferry terminal which provides ferry services from Singapore directly to Desaru Coast.
She said the terminal, which will be built by Desaru Coast, is expected to be ready by the first quarter of 2021 and will offer Singaporeans an alternative, more efficient way to travel.
Desaru Coast confirmed that the terminal will include a customs and immigration complex, and when finished will boost accessibility from Singapore.
"Once completed, the ferry terminal will provide direct ferry access from the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, Singapore into Desaru Coast, which will take about 1hr 15mins," a Desaru Coast spokesperson told CNA.
AGROTOURISM NEEDS A BOOST
Prof Amran, who was commissioned by the government to do a study on rural tourism in Desaru, added that more must be done to develop the area’s agrotourism.
Desaru has a renowned fruit farm, ostrich farm as well as a firefly river cruise, but these attractions are stale and need redevelopment, he said.
“They still attract tourists but they have stagnated in terms of quality of experience. So if these attractions were to be polished, and raised to the level of the best attractions in the region, then they could attract more people,” he said.
“It’s not sufficient to have good resorts, there must be good activities to pull tourists. How many days can you attract people to stay in hotels and just hang around there and lie around the beach?” Prof Amran added.
When CNA visited the Desaru Fruit Farm last month, there were barely any tourists. The farm tours, which are scheduled four times a day, were only conducted when enough people were interested, said a staff member who declined to be named.
“During durian season, more tourists would come and eat our durian buffet. But otherwise, it is largely quiet," said the employee.
Meanwhile, at Desaru's Bujang firefly river cruise, visitors have complained that the floating restaurant where the cruise starts is hard to locate.
"There is no reception in the village area so it is hard to use GPS to get there. The lighting in the roads leading to the cruise is also bad, and it is dangerous to drive there in the evening," said Ms Marlisa Ahmad, a visitor from Kuala Lumpur.
Ms Liow acknowledged that more can be done to develop agrotourism, and that the government is working closely with the private sector.
"I think a modern challenge is to attract visitors who increasingly have shorter attention spans. We have to continuously grab their attention by coming up with new concepts so as to keep people interested," she said.
She cited how events like the upcoming Ironman 70.3 Desaru Coast - an international triathlon event that will be held in April 2020, and the Desaru International Bike Week, as examples of how the area can capture the attention of visitors, especially international tourists.
However, Ms Liow stressed that the Singapore market is still the "priority market" for Johor.
"It's very important to get more Singapore tourists to keep on coming into Johor. Our vision is to expand the (tourism offerings) for the whole state, and put forward more attractions so that Singaporeans can visit other districts, not just Desaru," she said.