KOTA KINABALU, Oct 18 ― Sabah’s often overlooked east coast will get a tourism boost from international direct flights from AirAsia, expected to start early next year.
AirAsia Group CEO Tan Sri Tony Fernandes today said that he is working to bring flights into Sandakan and Tawau from cities in China, Korea, Japan and other Asean states beginning in January and February 2020.
“We want to bring growth there. We want to launch it during the winter season so we can promote Sabah’s beautiful beaches to them,” he told reporters here after paying a courtesy visit to Chief Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.
Fernandes said he is confident in the potential of the two coastal cities in Sabah, but added that he will visit Tawau today to see for himself.
Sandakan is the main gateway to wildlife attractions like Sungai Kinabatangan and Turtle Islands park, while Tawau is in close proximity to Semporna town, which is the jump off to islands such as Sipadan and Mabul, plus a dozen other smaller islands.
While blessed with natural resources, the region suffers from a bad rep due to several tourist kidnapping incidents in the past. Cross border crime continue to plague the borders but tighter security have forced kidnappers to resort to fishermen rather than tourists.
Fernades said that the state capital will still be the main hub, adding that the Kota Kinabalu International Airport will get a new AirAsia flight direct to Seoul next August 2020.
The airline tycoon said he is confident of continuously growing Sabah’s tourism, particularly the state capital of Kota Kinabalu especially if AirAsia has control of the now unused Terminal 2 airport following its eviction from in December 2015.
He also highlighted the impending move of Indonesia's capital to Balikpapan in Kalimantan as another factor that could help Sabah solidify its position as a regional hub.
“We believe we can do a lot more from Sabah. We are currently bringing in some eight million people but I think we can bring in 15 million people, with RM150 billion to the tourism economy through the flights we can bring,” he said.
“KK is a wonderful position in between North Asia and Australia. It’s easy to travel to, a nice stopover with equidistance of both,” he said.
Fernandes also reiterated that AirAsia was keen on reviving the Terminal 2, especially while they wait for plans of the new airport in Sabah’s west coast district of Kimanis to firm up.
“The new airport will take at least five to seven years to build. In the interim, we can have this. Terminal 2 is a good option for an extension. The chief minister is supportive but the ball is in MAHB’s court,” he said, referring to Malaysia’s airport authority Malaysia Airport Holdings Berhad.
He however said that MAHB is more focused on KLIA and KLIA2, while airports in Sabah are lacking in facilities and have no room to grow.
“Maybe it is time for regional governments to have more say in their airports,” he said.
AirAsia is among the biggest contributor to Sabah’s tourism arrivals, bringing in 86 flights a week from international destinations especially China.