(eTN) – To firmly establish a destination on the tourism world map today, it is not only a matter of natural or cultural attractions. Air connections are of crucial importance. In East Malaysia, the state of Sabah has been actively promoting entry access to its capital, Kota Kinabalu, even providing funds for airlines keen to fly into it. Combined with an aggressive strategy of Malaysia Airports Berhad (MAHB)to air carriers, it has worked miracles. After five years, Sabah has won the battle for notoriety.
Over the last years, Sabah has indeed enjoyed healthy growth rates in its tourist arrivals. In 2000, the state recorded only 0.77 million tourist entries of which 0.41 million were foreigners. In 2009, total arrivals topped 2.25 million, while foreign arrivals reached 0.56 million. This represents respective increases of 192 percent and 36.6 percent. From January to May 2010, Sabah has seen tourist arrivals growth accelerating as the recession’s effects faded away. During the first five months of the year, total arrivals are up 8.1 percent, reaching almost a million.
Kota Kinabalu airport is now firmly established as Malaysia’s second largest airport in terms of passenger traffic and served destinations, just behind Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airports (MAHB) managing director Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad aims to develop the Kota Kinabalu International Airport (KKIA) into a regional hub. Providing financial incentives and marketing support, the airport’s company is focusing on attracting new air services from Australia and North East Asia – specifically out of Japan, Korea, and Greater China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong). Northeast Asia represents already 51 percent of all international passengers arriving in Kota Kinabalu. MAHB estimates also that the airport can act as a regional gateway to Indonesia and the Philippines thanks to its close proximity to both countries. Last year, Kota Kinabalu traffic reached 4.88 million (+3.8 percent over 2008) and is likely to overpass the five-million passenger mark in 2010. All Sabah airports recorded in 2009 over 6.98 million passengers (+3.7 percent over 2008), representing 13 percent of all passenger movements in Malaysia.
Sabah has so far gained more exposure as a tourist destination thanks to the multiplication of flights by low-cost carriers. The AirAsia Group is so far the largest in terms of destinations out of Kota Kinabalu. The airline set up a base five years ago, and links today Sabah capital to 15 destinations, including 8 to foreign countries. Last April, the airline inaugurated a daily flight to Hong Kong after opening flights to Brunei in autumn 2009. AirAsia is not the only low-fare carrier; Jetstar flies to both Perth and Singapore, while Cebu Pacific links KK to Manila. The return of Malaysia Airlines to Kota Kinabalu indicates that the Malaysian national carrier is fully aware of the potential of the destination. By indicating on August 9 to develop a new regional hub linking 6 cities on northeast Asia – including Osaka and Tokyo -Haneda – to KK with possible connections to MAS extensive domestic market, competition is likely to hit up and even bring prices down on routes such as Taiwan and Hong Kong already served by AirAsia – a great perspective for tourists to Sabah!