KOTA KINABALU, Nov 29 — The first-ever execution of a Malaysian hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants after a rash of abductions has cast a pall over Sabah’s already ailing tourism industry, further unnerving would-be tourists to the state.
Tour operators here said they have been battling queries from foreign travel agents and bookers who are worried about sending tourists over to Sabah, specifically the east coast.
“Many have emailed to ask if it is safe. Safety has always been an issue in Sabah due to the blanket perception they have of Sabah due to the east coast kidnappings,” said Sandakan Tourism Association vice president Alexander Yee.
“They didn’t specifically mention the beheadings, but after asking, some cancelled their bookings, citing a change of plans,” said Yee, adding that the overall perception of the lack of security has continued to hurt Sabah.
He said that the travel advisories from the United Kingdom and other countries against visiting Sabah also contributed to visitors’ anxiety.
The UK cautions its citizens to avoid the east coast of Sabah unless it is essential that they visit the area, citing among others the abductions by Filipino gunmen including the incident involving Bernard Then who was beheaded this month.
A dive operator in Semporna, who declined for him or his company to be named, said the firm has had to work doubly hard to get divers for the peak period of December when they previously were always fully booked.
“Agents do ask about the latest in the southern Philippines and what happened to the hostages. When they read about the beheading, they immediately contacted us to ask if it was true.
“They didn’t cancel bookings, but there were very few anyway, from FITs, (and) not groups,” he said, using the acronym for “free independent travellers.”
Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents (MATTA) vice-president Datuk KL Tan said that safety and security threats are now global issues that have affected travel patterns worldwide.
“Countries are quick to put up negative travel advisories even though incidents are confined to specific areas, thus causing unnecessary inflated fear. This will have impact on tourists arrivals,” he said.
Sabah’s security has been under scrutiny since a series of kidnappings beginning late 2013, in which tourists were taken by armed gunmen while vacationing on the east coast of the state that is known for its beaches and world-class diving.
Two back-to-back aviation disasters involving national carrier Malaysia Airlines and the deadly earthquake in June delivered additional blows to the industry and sent it into one of its biggest recorded slumps, with an estimated 50 to 80 per cent decline in business.
It remains to be seen whether the shocking execution of Then, a 39-year-old Sarawakian engineer who had been on the cusp of release, on the Philippine island of Jolo two weeks ago at the hands of the kidnap-for-ransom group will further exacerbate the industry’s recovery here.
Sabah Tourism Board reported visitor arrival statistics from January to September this year show a small decline of 1.7 per cent or 2.36 million tourists from last year’s 2.4 million. The increase of domestic travellers has helped to mitigate a 3.8 per cent drop in international arrivals.
Considering the challenges, the industry has shown resilience and fought back with aggressive marketing on social media, at trade events and as a meeting-incentive-convention-exhibition (MICE) destination as well as receiving a boost in the form of direct flights from China.
Tan said that Sabah was on the recovery from some of its darkest hours with several measures already in the offing.
“We expect better days ahead with the opening of new trails to Mount Kinabalu summit on 1 December 2015. Bookings for the packages are on high demand and expected to boost arrivals.
“Recent new air services linking to Sabah and China will also see increasing Chinese tourists arrivals for 2016,” he said, also noting that the ringgit slump will help increase interest in travelling to the country.
According to him, AirAsia will begin daily services between Kota Kinabalu and Wuhan in January 2016, China Southern Airlines thrice-weekly flights from Guangzhou to Kota Kinabalu from December 2015, and there were tentative plans for 180 charter flights from secondary cities in China to Kota Kinabalu from December to March.
Yee, who is also the Kinabatangan-Corridor of Life Tourism Operators Association (KiTA) president expressed hope that despite the precautionary cancellations, the initial chaos will die down soon.
“The worry should lessen within a month. So long as nothing new crops up, things should be ok soon,” he said.
Then was on holiday in Sandakan with his wife on May 14 this year when he was kidnapped, along with seafood restaurant’s manager, Thien Nyuk Fun.
Thien, 50, was released on November 8, allegedly after a reported ransom was paid for the both of them, but negotiations went awry and Then was held back.
He was reportedly killed on November 17. It is the first time a hostage from Malaysia has been killed by the terror group.