KOTA KINABALU: Revianna Jamlius, a mother of two, made a living over the last 15 years working as a scuba divemaster at Sabah’s famous Tunku Abdul Rahman marine park.
Over the last few months, however, she has found herself clearing plates and wiping tables at a coffee shop in Kota Kinabalu.
She still wears her company’s “dive instructor” t-shirt, but instead of a scuba tank strapped on her back, she holds a wet cloth and carries a large pail. It is not the life she envisioned for herself.
In Sabah, which depends heavily on international tourism, she is just one of thousands of workers who have lost their livelihoods during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The issue of extending help to stakeholders in the tourism industry, like Jamlius, has emerged as a hot button issue for candidates campaigning during the lead up to the Sabah state election on Sep 26.
Candidates from the incumbent Warisan Plus coalition as well as from the opposition parties have acknowledged that the tourism industry must be saved. Some have outlined plans to help individuals and businesses during this difficult period.
Commenting on these efforts, Jamlius said: “Yes this election is important for many of us. We want the next state government to be able to help us get back our jobs and restart the industry as soon as possible.”
"EXTREMELY CHALLENGING TIME" FOR TOURISM SECTOR
There is no doubt that the industry is in need of urgent revival.
James Alin, an economist with University Malaysia Sabah noted that around 70 per cent of Sabah’s tourism market is driven by international tourists, unlike neighbouring state Sarawak which has a higher concentration of domestic visitors.
“I estimate that out of the around 500,000 people who are currently unemployed in Malaysia, 200,000 are people from Sabah, and many of them are impacted by the tourism sector (downturn),” said Alin.
The stretch along Kota Kinabalu’s Jessleton Point, where many travel companies operate, has become deserted. The shutters were down for most of the sea and land tour agencies, and some even displayed signs saying that the shop lots were available for rent.
Wilsen Timangan, a guide who previously ran tours for those visiting Kundasang town and climbing packages for Malaysia’s highest mountain, Mount Kinabalu, told CNA that he has no income since March.
He added that the parking area for the starting point to climb the mountain, which would typically be packed with buses in September, was now empty.
“It’s really sad because there are thousands of guides and porters in Ranau who depend on tourism for money. Some of them have resorted to farming to feed their families,” said Timangan.
The tourism industry in Malaysia came to a sudden halt in March when the movement control order (MCO) was implemented. In the recovery phase of the MCO, domestic travel has been encouraged but the road to recovery has been slow.
Tan Kok Liang, president for the Malaysian Association of Tour And Travel Agents, told CNA that Sabah has been one of the worst hit states, due to its reliance on international tourists from China and South Korea.
He noted that before the pandemic, Sabah had around 660 flights a week but this has now been reduced to 110.
“The tourism sector is facing an extremely challenging time due to continued closure of border … We cannot treat this phenomenon with a ‘business-as-usual’ attitude,” said Tan.
WARISAN PLUS LAUNCHES STIMULUS PACKAGE
On the fifth day of the campaigning period for the Sabah state elections, the state’s minister for tourism, culture and environment Christina Liew unveiled a RM2 million (US$484,000) stimulus package to boost domestic tourism.
The package allows licensed tour operators to receive a RM50 subsidy per traveller for each tour with a minimum 3-day-2-night programme in Sabah.
Liew, who is also deputy chief minister of Sabah, is campaigning under the Parti Keadilan Rakyat banner in the Warisan Plus coalition.
In an interview with CNA, Liew said the stimulus was introduced to boost domestic tourism, a potentially big market if promoted well by the state government.
“We cannot let these tourism stakeholders continue to suffer and wait for international tourism to resume. We want to show that the Warisan Plus (incumbent) state government is a caring government and will help them. That’s why these stimulus packages will be able to serve that purpose,” said Liew on Thursday (Sep 17).
“Life will not be the same as before the COVID-19 pandemic but at least it helps ... We are not sitting down doing nothing, this government is willing to listen,” she added.
How effective is the stimulus package likely to be?
Tan, who is also owner and director of Borneo Trails Tours and Travel, acknowledged that the stimulus package will be able to subsidise additional cost incurred due to the implementation of health and safety protocols during the pandemic.
“Tour operators are operating at thin profit margins to get the industry moving. The high cost of airfares is currently a main deterrent in attracting tourists to Sabah,” he said.
However, University Malaysia Sabah's Alin told CNA that the stimulus package might be missing the point. He said the money would be put to better use by giving directly to those left unemployed, or retraining and reskilling them so they can be re-deployed to other industries until tourism resumes.
“The stimulus package simply means spending taxpayers’ money. But spending is one thing, who do you spend it on? Does it reach people who really need it the most?” said Alin.
“During this crucial time, maybe the taxpayers' money will be wasted on a group segment in the industry that does not need support immediately,” he added.
Besides Liew and Warisan Plus, other parties have also brought up tourism as a key issue over the course of the campaign.
In the 9-corner fight for Api-Api seat where Liew is contesting, one of her opponents independent candidate Ng Chun Sua has reportedly said that the tourism infrastructure in the state’s capital Kota Kinabalu is lacking, and that the state government must do more to promote the town as a tourist destination.
The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which is under the opposition Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS) coalition, outlined in its manifesto that it is looking to capitalise on Sabah’s natural beauty and rich culture to offer “tourism products of higher value”.
In the same vein, BN also highlighted that it would like to build an ecosystem to ensure that Sabah’s gig economy would benefit locals, especially those in the tourism sector.
GRS is also looking to bank on its close ties to the federal government. Malaysia’s deputy finance minister Abdul Rahim Bakri, who is a BN member of parliament, reportedly met with Sabah tourism stakeholders in a focus group session during the campaigning period to better understand the challenges they face during the pandemic.
READ: Sabah state election: PM Muhyiddin unveils 'I promise' manifesto to extend more aid amid COVID-19
Additionally, chief for one of the opposition parties, Liberal Democratic Party Chong Kah Kiat, who is contesting the Inanam seat, said that if elected, his party would like to revive Sabah’s tourism industry by linking up with airlines from international hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta and some cities in Australia.
Chong, who was formerly the state's chief minister, added that he would also work to develop Sabah as a preferred medical tourism destination.
Meanwhile, Liew of Warisan Plus maintained that she is not resting on her laurels when it comes to restarting international tourism.
She told CNA that negotiations are underway with China’s consul general in Kota Kinabalu, Liang Caide, to open up travel bubbles between Sabah and provinces in China that are considered “safe zones” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, she stressed that it was important for Warisan Plus to be re-elected so that these negotiations can proceed.
“When we are ready, we will discuss in what form this can be done. The (tourists) may come by charter flight or other specially arranged commercial flights,” said Liew.