Sabah Tourism Board welcomed its new general manager Gordon Yapp, who was promoted to the post from deputy general manager, effective 1 April 2016. Not new to the tourism industry, Gordon brings with him 30 years of experience from his early start as marketing officer in 1986 at the then Sabah Tourism Promotion Corporation. During his tenure as deputy general manager, Gordon played an instrumental role in developing markets for Sabah, most notably the Korean and Japanese markets, making them Sabah’s top visitor arrivals for 10 years.
In an interview with Borneo360 Alive, Gordon expressed confidence in leading the organization to greater heights amidst a very competitive global tourism market. Here is what he had to say about the tourism industry in Sabah and its future.
Unique Selling Points
“Sabah is a very unique state in Malaysia because of various factors – it is located in the island of Borneo, and the name Borneo itself is very unique, it is a very saleable brand and internationally, it is already well-known,” says Gordon.
He lists Sabah’s natural assets such as Kinabalu Park with Mt Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in South East Asia, and dive islands just off the east coast of Sabah, as unique features contributing to Sabah’s immense tourism appeal. Having the oldest rainforest in the world and endemic animals such as the Borneo pygmy elephant and proboscis monkey in the Kinabatangan are equally significant attractions.
“We are lucky because Sabah is located in the coral triangle in the island of Borneo which is one of the richest in terms of marine life and that’s why in the east coast of Sabah, the diving spots are among the best in the world. Pulau Sipadan, about 1.5 hours from Semporna has been rated as one of the best diving spots in the world due is part to the conservation efforts by the government. Some of the other islands on the east coast also have turtle sanctuaries that highlight another unique marine life that you can observe.”
Adventure sport is another feature of Sabah’s tourism industry that has seen some significant developments recently.
“Sabah is a natural playground for adventure sports because of its natural landscape and terrain. For example, we have the Mt. Kinabalu Climbathon where you are able to race up and down Mt Kinabalu, the Sabah Adventure Challenge, the Borneo Safari which is one of the largest 4-wheel drive expeditions in South East Asia, the Borneo International Marathon, and a few other smaller events such as ultra marathons, trail biking, and big bikes. We have had bikers from Brunei and Indonesia who have actually come here to do big bike tours around Sabah.”
Apart from its natural attractions, Sabah’s multi-cultural society is also a big pull factor in bringing in international and domestic tourists.
“We have over 30 different tribes who live in harmony. There are many inter-marriages which is one of the reasons for the high level of tolerance and harmonious living. Why it is different is because each culture has its own custom, language and tradition. Even other Malaysian from Peninsular Malaysia find it unique.”
“Our target markets are those with direct accessibility because it is easier to promote. For example, China is one of our top markets where we have more than 40 direct flights per week, Korea with 21 flights per week, as well as to other countries such as Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. Although there are no direct flights to Europe, we do promote there for the long haul market. This has been our traditional market for many years, especially the UK, and we like to have a mix of tourists. For the Europeans, they like the wildlife and for the Chinese, they are more into our islands, beaches and food.”
“We are also promoting ourselves as a MICE destination. This is a big market and although our convention centre is not yet complete, we expect the MICE market to be even bigger once it is completed in two to three years time,” adds Gordon.
“Another market that we are targeting is the cruise ship market. We get big ships; we even had the QE visit us recently. In the first two months, we’ve had 17 cruise ships that made a stopover in Sabah so that is quite a big market.”
“Other markets we are targeting are diving, which has always been a big market for the east coast, and golfers as we have 5 international standard golf courses in the city itself. We are also promoting ourselves to the student market. The other niche market that we have is the birding or birders market. In fact, we have been organizing the bird festival for the last few years, and we get a lot of birders from Europe, Taiwan, and Japan. Even though the numbers are small, they are big spenders.”
Taking over the helm as general manager of Sabah Tourism Board entails a big responsibility but Gordon already has a few ideas of his own to move the industry forward.
“Because the tourism landscape has changed, the way marketing is done has also changed. So to keep up with the latest trend, STB will now shift to go into digital marketing and will make use of the various social media as our marketing platform,” says Gordon, adding that this is in direct response to a more competitive industry with a lot of new destinations coming into the competition.
“It is very important for Sabah Tourism Board to work with the private sector. We have to synergize our marketing strategies because at the end of the day, they are also going out to promote so we should consolidate our efforts and resources, plan and work closely together towards promoting tourism products together.”
He stressed that the role of Sabah Tourism Board as a state government agency is to facilitate and promote but ultimately the industry is private sector driven and is the driving force behind the industry. Hence, working together with the private sector is crucial to make sure the industry will continue to succeed in the long term.