Sharzede Datuk Salleh Askor

State’s tourism sector can weather the storm as long as tourism industry players are gung-ho enough to adapt, innovate, and work together.

— Sharzede Salleh Askor.

KUCHING: The Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted all sectors globally, especially the tourism industry, as borders have closed and people are shirking travel plans due to virus fears.

Sarawak is not free from these effects. Its tourism sector has experienced a drastic drop in visitors and tourism receipts this year.

Nevertheless, Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) chief executive officer (CEO) Sharzede Salleh Askor remains optimistic but realistic — believing that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

She trusts that the state’s tourism sector will be able to weather this storm as long as tourism industry players are gung-ho enough to adapt, innovate, and work together.

In an exclusive interview with New Sarawak Tribune recently, Sharzede spoke about Sarawak’s tourism outlook and the ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’ intrastate tourism campaign, while also sharing words of encouragement for tourism industry players.

Q: Can you give us a brief background about yourself and your experience in the tourism industry?

Sharzede: I love the service industry and that is an added advantage for me. As soon as I graduated, I had the opportunity to work both on the management side and owner’s side in the hospitality or hotel industry.  

I started working in Kuching with the Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC). Then I went over to West Malaysia and that was where I got much more exposure. The conglomerate which I joined had a hospitality unit.

My career gave me opportunities to be involved in Tourism Malaysia. I was involved in tourism, various international brand hotels and conglomerates which had hospitality units.  

Why did you make this sudden change from the service industry to the tourism industry and decide to return to Sarawak?

Sharzede Datuk Salleh Askor

I told myself I had been working in Kuala Lumpur for 32 years and I was at retiring age already. So I must give back to Sarawak what I had learnt.  

Having completed two years as CEO of STB, can you share with us your journey so far?

The journey has been exciting. I started in the last quarter of 2018, and 2019 was a fantastic year because we managed to roll out all our plans. We achieved results with an increase of 5.22 percent in the number of visitors in 2019 compared to 2018.

One of the reasons I came back to Sarawak was to roll out the Visit Sarawak Campaign, which aimed to rebrand Sarawak and make sure our people were proud of the state.  

Therefore, we promote the elements of Culture, Adventure, Nature, Food and Festivals (CANFF). With our 27 ethnic groups and everything else here, there is a lot to discover in Sarawak. The Visit Sarawak Campaign is not just a one-year campaign.  

What are some of the biggest challenges facing the tourism industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic?

One of the biggest challenges is changing the people’s mindset. People are so used to doing business as usual with a booming tourism industry, and suddenly everything changes. But we cannot be in denial; we need to innovate and change the way we conduct our business.

This is the most challenging part for a lot of people because as human beings, we like to stay in our comfort zone.

What was your initial reaction when the Covid-19 pandemic hit?

I wondered how we were going to move on. Since we are on an island, there are a lot of challenging factors such as connectivity. It is not like in West Malaysia, where you can drive from Johor to Penang in a few hours. We do have roads here but it is still challenging and not as easy to go from one place to another.

However, I would describe it as adventurous. Those who cannot stand long hours of travelling, may not want to go but the young ones will take advantage of this situation.

Whatever it is we are facing, it is a way for us to adapt and change ourselves. We are very blessed our state is still developing and growing. The state government has been very focused on making tourism a major economic contributor. I believe that with this focus, we may advance further.

This is one of the challenging moments in my career and my life. I ask myself whether I can bring Sarawak to the next level with the support and with a government that believes in tourism. That drives me. I would love to see the fruits of my endeavours at the end of the day.

Did we manage to reach our targets for tourist arrivals last year?

In 2019, our visitor target was five million but we reached 4.66 million, which was very close.

However, with the pandemic this year, we had to revise and be realistic. We cannot expect to achieve five million. We actually revised our strategy thrice.

Our visitor target now is about 1.4 million and we agreed to stick to it until the third quarter. Because of the latest surge in Covid-19 cases and the current restrictions, we may not be able to reach the target.

Sharzede Datuk Salleh Askor

However, most importantly, we know the safety of our people comes first.

How has Sarawak fared in terms of number of visitors and value of tourism receipts this year?

This year, from January to September, we had 1.15 million visitors to Sarawak. That is a drop of about 65.67 percent compared to the same period last year.

Our visitor target this year is about 1.4 million, which is a daunting task for us to achieve due to the latest Covid-19 measures and surge in cases both in West Malaysia and Sabah.  

In terms of revenue, our target for this year is RM3.56 billion. The value of our tourism receipts from January to September this year is RM2.78 billion.

For the same corresponding period last year, the tourism receipts were RM8.67 billion while the amount for the whole of last year was RM11.57 billion. We have experienced a big drop this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In your opinion, how long will it take for Sarawak’s tourism to bounce back?

I don’t want to be pessimistic nor do I want to be too optimistic.  I want to be realistic. As you know, the vaccine is being developed and a vaccine can boost confidence. Without the vaccine, the borders may not open soon.

We in STB as well as the ministry did this projection during our Sarawak Economic Action Council (SEAC) meeting.  

After 2021 or 2022, the growth may be slightly better than 1.4 million visitors. I believe globally, there are indications that it will take several years before things return to normal. I personally believe it is going to take more than two to three years for us to really pick up again.

But we should not be negative. We can use this time to improve our products and services by the time our doors reopen.

Can you share a bit about the ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’ campaign?

When we learned about the pandemic and how it would affect everything, we had to re-strategise. STB has a 3R strategy with three phases, namely Rebuilding and Relief, Recovery Collaboration and Redialling.

The first phase, Rebuilding and Relief, is all about instilling confidence.  

To bolster the industry’s confidence, we provide seed funds and this is the time they improve their websites and digital online presence. We had a good success rate as a lot of tour operators applied for the funds.

Another thing we have introduced is the Sarawak product experience. We bring agencies and tour operators to new areas which can be developed into new products.

We took this time to let people rebuild and understand the industry and provide them relief; although it is not a large amount, it can help them move and improve.

For the Recovery Collaboration phase, we focus on collaborating with the Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF) – that is where ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’ comes in. It is a catalytic programme that will help industry players. It helps inbound tour operators because when we have people going around, they will definitely eat, use transportation, and purchase items and so on. So there is a spin-off effect.

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File Photo: Abdul Karim (second left) with from left Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Permanent Secretary Hii Chang Kee, Sarawak Tourism Board CEO Sharzede Salleh Askor and Sarawak Tourism Federation President Audrey Wan Ullok pose for a photograph after the launching of ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’.

Tell us about the ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’ campaign.

Under this programme, we have 30 packages in collaboration with STF. Some of them are new, some are not known to many people and some are expensive like Mulu – but with the offer of a 50 percent discount, it becomes cheaper for local visitors. The campaign caters to the local market.

STB subsidises 50 percent of the cost and the consumer only pays 50 percent. At the same time, tour operators get business and it helps the economy to move.

We have had over 2,700 people enjoying this campaign in just the two months since it was launched. We have sold more than about 500 tour packages and in terms of value, we have already subsidised slightly over RM300,000.

Multiply that to the full cost of RM600,000 and this does not include the spin-off effects as well. Some may think this is a small amount but it does help to put money in the operators’ pockets and helps them to sustain.

With this programme, we do a consortium model where people come in together and it is on a rotational basis so everyone gets a chance and a piece of that business. This is the time we must put all our efforts together and unite.   

‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’ is really for Sarawakians and residents here to really know about Sarawak and be proud of it.  West Malaysians working here with documents are more than welcome to enjoy these facilities.

Besides the tour operators, longhouses and homestays are quite happy with this campaign too. Everybody is getting a piece of the pie, including the boatmen who go to Bako.

The response was initially slow, but as we pushed the campaign and visibility improved, more people got to know it, so now it is picking up in terms of its take-up and tour packages.  

Will this campaign be extended to West Malaysia with similar offers once the Covid-19 situation improves?

Yes, I think we will brand ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’. I believe it will be a great brand and product.  

Besides ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’, does STB have other campaigns to bring in more tourists?

We were about to announce a very interesting campaign which would bring West Malaysians to Sarawak. The launch was supposed to be this month but in view of the Sarawak Disaster Management Committee’s (SDMC) decisions and West Malaysian restrictions as well, we had to push that a bit later.

I leave it in the good hands of the minister to announce the campaign, but there will be a fantastic campaign for interstate travel which will involve the bundling of airlines and accommodations subsidised by STB. It will be cheaper and worthwhile for anyone to come to Sarawak.

Will STB be looking at Singapore too?

Sharzede Salleh Askor

Yes. Now we understand many borders are closed and so we must concentrate on the domestic tourism market. However, the second layer is the regional market such as Singapore and Brunei and the last layer is our international long-haul destinations.

Though we are focusing on the domestic market at the moment, it does not mean we do not have visibility in these two other areas. News still goes out and we are still engaging with our players in the regional and international areas so that we are always on their radar. We still need to ensure we are on top of the mind of agencies out there, so we are in their packages once the doors reopen.

This is where we join virtual events such as trade fairs. For example, we participate every year in the World Travel Market (WTM) in London, but this year we are doing it virtually. We always have a budget for the international sector and will not cancel it 100 percent, but it is obviously a bit lower as expenses have been reduced.

STB is a strong advocate of responsible tourism. Can you elaborate on this?

Responsible tourism is about being responsible as a visitor and as a host as well. At the end of the day, this will result in better places for people to live in and visit.

Basically, we hope to reach out to communities and this also aligned with our SEAC master plan on sustainability and environment. We focus on the empowerment of the community, the environment, and the economic viability of the community.

For a pilot project this year, STB identified ten longhouses and homestays in the Kuching area. We will teach them waste management and soap-making. We chose soap-making because it is a product which can be used by homestays and can save cost. They can also brand and sell it.

We want to see the take-up and how they are rolling these out; they will be monitored. We will then identify three longhouses and homestays and make them a showcase for other longhouses. This is a way to empower and improve the community.

It also aligns with Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg’s vision to increase household incomes in Sarawak.  

Are you satisfied with the efforts of local tour operators in taking proactive measures?

One of the challenges is that tourism is not just about the product. We have to ensure that the product meets visitors’ expectations and international standards. If visitors have a certain expectation and the experience is below that expectation, this would be weak branding.

However, if the experience exceeds one’s expectations, then visitors will be impressed and satisfied. And it is through word of mouth as well that one’s product would have strong branding.

Sarawak is a wonderful place with lots of products, but it can be better in terms of quality. I am glad that the state government realises this and is channelling funds to improve our tourism products such as our national parks.

The mind-set of the tourism players need to be changed. If Sarawak wants to focus on niche markets, it must be able to provide facilities that meet the needs of the niche market.

For instance, I am very proud of our Waterfront area, but I think it can be better. It can be managed better with no tentage which can be an eyesore, and have better eateries and walkways.

I am sure whoever is managing it will be looking into that because the Waterfront is the heart of the city and a must-visit place for visitors with various attractions such as the Floating Mosque, musical fountain, and so on.

We have wonderful places and our people are very warm — that is already an advantage in itself.

Should our tourism industry players emulate the example of Sabah tour operators in terms of taking the initiative to promote Sarawak’s tourism more actively?

Sharzede Salleh Askor

Yes, I believe our tourism industry players are not gung-ho enough and are often hoping for the state government to take action.

They are also not willing to work together, but I believe the pie will be even bigger if we do. For instance, we have so many city tours, why can’t we have a city tour consortium? With this, you can really work together as one and everyone can benefit.

When the pandemic is over, the strongest will survive but the weaker will be knocked out. But I hope that more can endure because when our doors are open and ready, we want more industry players to welcome all these visitors rather than just a handful. That is when the whole industry will thrive further, not only in the hands of a few people. The multiplier effect will be even better.

Often, the matter of funds is brought up during our syndication engagements with the industry. But don’t talk about money all the time; talk about what you want to do and create, be innovative. How do you want to work differently?

It cannot be denied that the Covid-19 pandemic going to go on for quite a while. So business has to be conducted differently. How do you want to put resources together and what can we do to ensure we survive together during this crisis?

I hope they will be more gung-ho. That is why we are encouraging the digital platform. They need to get on board and improve the quality of their platform instead of just hoping the state government will come in and help. All sectors, not just tourism, are suffering.

Tourism industry players should apply for this ‘Sia Sitok Sarawak’. I would have thought these players would jump in and apply, yet we still have the funds available for quite a few companies. We hope that whenever we have such initiatives and stimulus, the players are as excited as we are.

What are your words of advice for industry players, especially during this critical time?

My advice is to change our mind-set and think how we can do things differently. We truly need to be much more creative and put our heads together. Be willing to work as one. If we put our efforts together and trust that this is for the betterment of the industry. We will be stronger in the long-term.

This is a time when we have the same spirit — we are survivors and we know we can do it together.

I would like to ask all tourism industry players to put our heads, hands, minds, and hearts together and move together side by side. I strongly believe we can sustain and survive these uncertainties facing us right now.