INGENUITY TO TOURISM
TOURISM IS SOMETHING WHICH MOST Sarawakians have grown up with. We can reel off the tip of our tongues without a second thought a laundry list of the many unique local events, attractions and delicacies which visitors should not miss. In fact, the world- renowned Rainforest World Music Festival — the crown jewel of Sarawak tourism — probably best symbolises how sophisticated and important tourism has become for the state.
But tourism in Sarawak wasn’t always this organised. As recently as 40 years ago, it was barely on the State Government’s radar and there were only a handful of tour operators, says Dato Lim Kian Hock. This sprightly, snowhaired, 80-year-old retiree who is also the longest-serving Sarawak Legislative Assembly Secretary, joined the Sarawak civil service as a junior officer in 1962. Through his 60-year career in public service, he has witnessed firsthand the beginnings of many of modern Sarawak’s crucial administrative and political developments. He has seen it all, in many ways, culminating in whole new career, begun at a time when most of his peers were retiring, as advisor to Sarawak Tourism Federation. Who better to tell us how Sarawak’s formal tourism efforts got their start and how Sarawak scored a tourism and PR coup at the 33rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference (CPC) in Kuala Lumpur in 1987.
But first, a history lesson. As recently as the early 1980s, tourism was not considered an important sector by the government, according to Lim. During the formation of Malaysia in 1963, tourism was not listed on the federal, state or concurrent list under the Federal Constitution. Nobody talked about tourism at the time. It was the private sector which first began sowing the seeds that would give rise to the tourism industry in Sarawak. A few stakeholders got together to establish the Sarawak Travel Association. A few tour operators also got together and formed a pro tem committee in 1963 to form the Sarawak Tourist Association.
As for the State Government, sometime around 1985, tourism came under the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. The state’s very first and sole tourism officer at that time was Bibiana Pek, tasked with monitoring and developing tourism efforts. It was only in 1987 when the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, led by the late Datuk Amar James Wong Kim Min was set up that tourism received its own portfolio. Within the Ministry, a tourism unit was established, overseen by Denis Hon. Then, on 12 November 1994, the Sarawak Tourism Board was incorporated to achieve its objectives of increasing tourist arrivals into the state.
Given the relative youth of Sarawak’s tourism portfolio and industry at the time, how then did Sarawak succeed in becoming the talk of the town among the more than 400 international delegates and observers at the 33rd CPC in KL in 1987?
The idea was sparked two years earlier at the 31st CPC in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Lim had been selected and appointed as secretary to the Commonwealth Parlimentary Malaysia delegation.
“I thought I’d better bring something from Sarawak on tourism. I went to Hilton and Holiday Inn (now Grand Margherita Hotel) and collected their pamphlets to bring along, I also brought some books on Sarawak. When I arrived in Canada, there was nobody displaying tourism materials. So I asked the conference secretariat if I could borrow half their table space to display my materials. I arranged all my materials on the table and I tied the books to the table legs. I told the girl there: ‘These are not allowed to be removed. The rest, if anybody comes, they can have it’. At the end of the conference, I gave the girl a souvenir, a keychain. So that was the start. There was no one else doing that.”
A Sabah delegate who was attending the conference, recognised a good thing and quickly joined Sarawak, adding pamphlets about Sabah he had brought to Lim’s display.
“At that time, it was pure conference. There were no visits (tours), except the occasional dinner here and there,” Lim recalled.
On a similar trip the following year, in Cyprus, Lim was better prepared with more magazines and brochures. He also brought a ‘pua kumbu’ and some photographs which he trimmed and pinned to the cloth to display. He also took along some travel information material from Choo Poh Hin, the founder and operator of Sarawak Travel Agencies (now CPH Travel) as well as holiday pamphlets from Holiday Inn and Hilton.
At the venue, he requested and got a table, along with a caution not to stick or nail anything to the wall. No problem as he had his ‘pua kumbu’ which he suspended along the wall with the help of some string. He wasn’t the only one to have a display this time as New Zealand also had a table. Once again, the Sabah delegation tagged along with Sarawak to display its travel and tourism materials.
“After that, Malaysia won the bid to hold the CPC in 1987 in KL. The team were worried they could not speak English, so I volunteered. I told them I would go to KL throughout the conference period and that I would like to join the committee. And I would contribute in writing to their daily newsletter and help in the editorial. I reserved the bottom part (of the newsletter), where I would put something about Sarawak.”
The newsletter would be placed in every room for delegates to read. That meant that every day, the delegates would have the chance to read about Sarawak.
In KL, the CPC also started offering pre-conference tours. In a twist of good fortune, Sarawak had the Package 1 slot. This was an opportunity to promote Sarawak which Lim was determined to make the most of. With the support of the State’s Ministries of Environment and Tourism and Social Development, tourism agencies and government departments, Lim pulled out all the stops to make sure the visitors would have an unforgettable ‘Sarawak experience’.
Denis gave Lim 150 dollars to engage someone to shoot video. The cameraman was instructed to follow the delegates everywhere they went and to ensure every delegate was featured in the video. The plan was to enable the visitors to see as much as possible within their short stay and romance their interest and imaginations with the State’s historical and cultural heritage. Lim played the role of guide as the coach took the visitors around.
The tour kicked off with a visit to the then Sarawak Legislative Assembly (now known as the old Dewan Undangan Negeri) followed by a tour of the Sarawak Museum. They also visited the Kuching Festival, where the visitors took part in a blowpipe demonstration and a Melanau swing. Also on the itinerary was a visit to a crocodile farm, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre as well as Kampung Gayu, Padawan a beautiful, traditional bamboo longhouse where the visitors were lavished with warm Sarawakian hospitality.
“We would know that we had done a good job if they were happy,” Lim said. He got his confirmation when the visitors spontaneously burst into song on the coach bus on the way back to Kuching.
The master copy of the tour video was handed to Denis while Lim brought another copy to KL to the conference. Denis also arranged for a TV and video player which they used to play the video throughout the CPC. Anyone who wanted could buy a copy to take home with them to show their family and friends. In the late afternoon, Lim would relay the number of orders for the day to Denis who reproduced copies overnight and entrusted them into the care of an airplane pilot the next morning to bring to KL, where they were delivered to Lim who distributed them to the buyers. Sarawak made back the 150 dollars it invested and more.
Lim also made sure there was a bigger and better display counter to promote Sarawak at the KL conference. Denis arranged for traditional carvings of a hornbill and an orangutan and also five framed posters to display at the special counter. The ‘pua kumbu’ was again roped into service. Every morning, the photos would be rearranged so the display always had a fresh look. In an ingenious PR move which created even more goodwill, the Sarawak team made sure that all the MPs from each Malaysian state, as well as the foreign delegates who had visited Sarawak earlier, stopped by the room where the counter was set up. Lim had asked the travel operator Choo, who was also a member of theSarawak Travel Association, if he wanted to attend the conference in case anyone was interested to book a trip to Sarawak, which Choo did. Choo also helped to man the Sarawak counter together with one of Lim’s staff who was there to assist with any matter pertaining to the Sarawak government.
“After the second day, I asked him (Choo): ‘Did anyone make any bookings?’. He said, ‘Nothing’. I told him,:’Uncle, I’m sorry I brought you down to KL and you spent so much money, but you did not get any business. You can go home tomorrow if you want.’ He said: ‘Nevermind, I will stay until it finishes.’ So he stayed until the end. When we came back to Kuching, there was still nothing,” Lim recalled.
But two years later, they saw the first fruits of their labour. “Uncle Choo rang me. ‘I got two coaches of foreign visitors. This is the result of that conference!’ ” This was exactly the good news that Lim had wanted to hear. This group of tourists was the first batch of many more to come. And so it was, with a keen desire to present Sarawak in the best light possible, some ingenuity and a dash of good luck, that Sarawak’s civil service and tourism players pulled off a marvellous marketing feat which significantly helped to create the foundation of the Sarawak tourism industry and what the Sarawak global brand represents today.