An increase in connectivity and facility upgrades are necessary to propel Sarawak's attractiveness on the global tourism map.
This was the highlight during the Malaysia-Thailand Business Networking and Sharing Forum yesterday which yielded discussions on the catalysts for boosting Sarawak's tourism sector.
Organised by the Asean-China Entrepreneur's Association (ACEA), the forum was attended by prominent figures such as the Minister of Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Sarawak Datuk Abdul Karim; the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Thailand to Malaysia Damrong Kraikruan; ACEA president and executive director of PPTelecom Sdn Bhd Dato' Stanley Ling; ACEA vice-president and managing director of Fame International Group Eddie Wee Teck Tong; and political secretary to the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Michael Tiang Ming Tee.
During the forum, Damrong shared his views on how Thailand had successfully built up its tourism industry over the past 50 years, and drawing from that knowledge, he said the top hurdle Sarawak has to overcome is the lack of connectivity.
"Connecting flights is very important. If you (Sarawak) can overcome this, you can easily overcome everything else" he said during the forum.
He said it was important that Sarawak's major cities must be connected to larger international airports within Asean to draw in as many international and regional tourists as possible.
"We are fortunate in Southeast Asia that Changi (Singapore Changi Airport) and Bangkok (Bangkok International Aiport) are â€˜truly' international airports, whereby people fly to Bangkok and Singapore and they can get connecting flights to almost everywhere in Asean" he added.
"People who change flights in Bangkok can easily reach Sarawak if it's interconnected, and even if a small percentage of our tourists decide on visiting Sarawak, that would be a huge boost to tourism locally.â€
Agreeing with this, Abdul Karim said that his ministry is in the midst of improving Kuching's connectivity, citing the Pontianak-Kuching route earlier this year and Langkawi-Kuching route as examples.
He also revealed plans to launch direct flights between Kuching to Shenzhen, China by the end the year.
"Give me a little bit of time, (and) I'll give you more flights" he affirmed during the forum.
Abdul Karim also said he was not neglecting other sectors in Sarawak and that he would be looking at a potential routes connecting Sibu to Kota Kinabalu in order to allow Sibu to potentially absorb some of the overflowing tourism business in Sabah.
Besides increased flight connectivity, Damrong also brought up that he felt that we needed more diversity in our facilities to accommodate for tourists.
"I think what you need is diversity in term of facilities, premium hotels like Raffles Hotel or the Mandarin Oriental would be needed to accommodate to tourists that want a luxury stay.
"It doesn't need to be on a large scale however, as many hotels in Phuket only have 10 to 15 rooms, but they charge up to US$10,000 per night. The option just needs to be there.
"And then you have to have places for backpackers, who are looking for economical accommodation, who don't mind fewer amenities for a cheaper price" he shared.
Building on this, Ling who is also the executive director of PPTelecom Sdn Bhd noted that digital facilities like free wifi and enhance mobile internet connectivity would also be necessary to accommodate to needs of tourists within the State.
"If you are a tourist, the first thing you want when you land in a new country is wifi. Being able to connect to wifi is no longer privilege but rather a need" Ling shared.
He explained that the internet has become so ingrained in our lives that, connectivity is essential for tourists as they would need the internet and applications to find out information on where to eat and drink, where to go, what to visit, and what to do.
And in attempt to bridge the gap of connectivity within the state for both its residents and tourists, Ling shared that his company has started a â€˜Free Wifi for Rakyat' program in conjunction with the Kuching North City Commission (DBKU).
He noted that the endeavour would be an expensive one for the state, but hoped that the program would be a catalyst for local telcos to start deploying increased wifi and mobile internet connectivity within the state.
"In terms of cost, it is a huge amount. Hopefully, we can act as catalyst for it because it is a necessity" he said.
"With more government support, we can deploy it very fast, while bringing in the latest technology and marketing methods. It can make Sarawak a force to be reckoned with.â€