Interview: Johnson Koh Yong Siang
How can Kota Kinabalu (KK) real estate developers help attract more tourists?
JOHNSON KOH YONG SIANG: KK already has ample assets for successful tourism. It is situated in a prime location and has quick access to nearby islands, beaches and mountains. In my opinion, the city is one of the best locations in the world from which to watch sunsets. The factor that unites all of these criteria is ease of access. My goal is for KK to be the central point for an easygoing holiday for people from the big, congested cities just a few hours plane ride away.
We will have a wide, 2 km-long boardwalk along the waterfront, highlighting the soft breeze and marine tourism activities, while creating a breathtakingly beautiful, peaceful ambiance for tourists that will entice them to return for longer stays. KK is all about the atmosphere; we want people to remember their alfresco dining experience in a floating restaurant at sunset when they are back home in Hong Kong, Singapore, Guanzhou or Beijing.
How does the rest of Sabah feature in this vision?
KOH: KK will remain the centre of development in Sabah, but Sandakan on the east coast is a fast-growing second. Connectivity to the city is increasing, with five-star hotels being erected and direct flights to China on the horizon. This is where Sabah’s nature tourism will be strongest, with proboscis monkeys and the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary drawing tourists from around the world.
KK is famous for its seafood, but it is an open secret that Sandakan has the freshest seafood around, which is always an attractive factor for East Asian tourists. There is room for more development in educational and sustainability tourism; the oil palm plantations across Sabah should be seen as an asset, not a detriment. We still have hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin jungle, but there is potential to use palm oil plantations as centres for education on sustainable development, as they are an ecosystem in and of themselves, providing the green lung that makes Sabah’s air so clean.
What challenges do developers in KK face?
A common problem experienced is a shortage of qualified workers, but this will be overcome in time. The booming construction industry provides jobs to residents of Sabah, and even attracts some foreigners. Tourism ripples through the entire economy, bringing in lucrative sources of income such as 5-star hotels, high-end retailers and events in the meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions segment. The market is what should determine salaries, and tourism and facilities management will eventually raise the benchmark of the salary scale.
Increasing skills in tourism, particularly English and Mandarin speaking skills, will make locals more valuable employees. We are currently facing a shortage of workers, so mass unemployment is not a problem; however, the limiting factors we are seeing are education and experience. As skills improve, salaries will increase. It is important to allow the market to work its course rather than expecting the government to immediately fix everything.
How would you rate the city’s infrastructure?
KOH: Traffic has recently become an issue in KK, but the city has been planning for this eventuality for decades. Now that federal funding has been made available, the one-way traffic scheme is being implemented in phases, starting at the KK waterfront in 2015. The bus revamp will also help mitigate the problem, and a monorail is already in the planning stages. The boardwalk will make the city much more walkable, and foreigners shouldn’t experience any problems navigating the city because all of the key areas for tourism are along the coastline. The increasing density of KK, including the new hotels that will be built in the next few years, will serve to make the city more accessible, rather than cause problems.
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