KOTA KINABALU, Feb 11 ― The ongoing travel ban on visitors from China has predictably upset tourism in Sabah, along with other businesses that used to thrive on the regular stream of tourists to the north Borneo capital seaside city now strangled by the Wuhan virus.
Since the ban on Chinese visitors arriving via direct flight earlier this month, the streets of Kota Kinabalu have been visibly empty of the colourfully garbed visitors from the Far East and their tour buses parked kerbside outside shopping malls, coffee shops and other tourist attractions.
With their biggest source of income cut off, local business owners, tour and travel companies, hotels, and food and beverage outlets here resorted to coming up with contingencies to fill the Chinese tourist void.
Many of the four- and five-star hotels have since slashed their rates and are offering “staycation” packages with food and beverage thrown in to entice Malaysian visitors to fill the unoccupied rooms.
The Malaysian Association of Hotels reported that Sabah suffered from up to 29,874 room cancellations from January 22 onwards, with some RM10 million in loss of revenue.
“We were supposed to be at 80 per cent occupancy, but we are barely touching 20 per cent,” one international chain hotelier told Malay Mail on condition of anonymity.
“We have to fill the rooms somehow, and on short notice, this is the most effective way,” he said.
At least four popular five-star hotels and resorts in the city have reduced their rates and are promoting these home-away-from-home packages for RM400 to RM500 for locals.
Tour companies, previously inundated with the hordes of Chinese tour groups, are drawing up special priced packages aimed at Malaysians.
“Island tours are also going cheap. They used to not even care to talk to one local family of tourists when they had all of the groups, every day of the week. Now they are offering up to half the price, and throwing in freebies,” said one freelance tour guide who only wanted to be known as Chong.
Jesselton Point, one of the boat terminals which ferries tourists to the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park offshore, has also been quiet, reminiscent of Kota Kinabalu back in 2014 and 2015 when tourism was low due to a spate of kidnappings along Sabah’s east coast as well as the months after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
“There are still some FITs, some Europeans, but business is definitely down by at least 50 per cent,” said one boat operator, using the abbreviation for free, independent traveller.
The drop has been drastic as the state government implemented the ban almost overnight, so much so that some Chinese tourists were left stranded in Sabah as their flights were grounded or cancelled.
“For these tourists, they ended up moving from a five-star resort to a three-star maybe and many are too stressed to really go out and enjoy themselves. Some still manage of course, and they have return flights via Kuala Lumpur or somewhere else,” said Chong.
He also said many restaurants catering to Chinese were also struggling in the recent two weeks.
“They were still OK during Chinese New Year, reaping the last of the tourists but since then, many have been empty and closing early. The seafood restaurants which used to be packed, no matter how big they were are also quiet now,” he said.
Along Tanjung Aru beach, a popular evening hangout due to the long stretch of beach which offers a panoramic view of the sunset, tour buses no longer ply the road nor create traffic chaos, but the 60 or so stall operators there offering food, drinks and other holiday trinkets are missing the daily hordes of tourists.
“We basically came back here because it was so popular with tourists. Now the locals are coming back. Many said that it was hard and troublesome to come here because it was packed with tour buses before but now they are returning. But we do miss the tourists.
“It’s only been about two weeks, but I hope things return to normal soon. Or else we might have to consider closing down,” said a fruit juice stall operator.
For people like Chong whose business and jobs had been heavily reliant on the Chinese market, it has been a time to look for other opportunities to supplement his income.
“The tour company is concentrating on attracting more locals now and I have some referrals from friends. There’s still people coming in. Many say it’s better now because there is less people.
“Even the seafood market along the waterfront is quieter so you can stroll anywhere casually. You can also bargain more,” he said.
The state government announced a ban on Chinese nationals coming in from China direct flights on February 29 but later expanded it to include all non-Sabahans who have travelled from or through mainland China, even those on transit.
Sabahans, permanent residents of Sabah and residents of Sabah under work pass, student pass, long-term social visit pass or any exemption order coming from China also have to go through a 14-day self quarantine.
The state granted a seven-day visa extension to China nationals who flew to Sabah before February 29.
Chinese tourists contribute hugely to the tourism industry in Sabah, making up some 40 per cent of its international visitors. Last year, some 598,566 Chinese visited Sabah.