Making Sarawak more appealing to foreign, local tourists

Is the nation ready for a second casino operating within its shores? The issue was tantalisingly brought to the fore recently by Sarawak's Minister in charge of Tourism, Datuk Seri Abdul Karim Hamzah, who did not rule out the possibility in what might have been a classic trial balloon.

The minister was asked about the government's plans for the Borneo Highlands, a multi-hectare resort development that was originally leased out to a company controlled by Tan Sri Lee Kim Yew.

Sarawak only recently succeeded in taking back control of the property after all court challenges were decided in the state government's favour.

The main reason for Sarawak resuming control over what was supposed to be a grand resort-like development is the fact that the company had largely failed to live up to the promise of developing the hill station, which is within a short driving distance of Kuching.

The ministerial trial balloon, if that was what was intended, has subsequently been met with largely positive public feedback.

There is no question that a Borneo Highlands casino will act as a catalyst for tourism development in the same way that the nation's single casino is the crown jewel of the Genting Highlands Resort.

In particular, and perhaps most crucially, the local elected representatives where Borneo Highlands is located — a predominantly Bidayuh-populated area — have come out in support of the casino idea.

They could not have been unaware of how Resorts World Genting almost singlehandedly made Genting Highlands into the international tourist haven it has become.

Although straddling the international border with Indonesian Kalimantan, its high elevation makes the Borneo Highlands relatively isolated while being within easy reach of the state capital.

One can easily imagine it becoming a magnet for tourists, especially when people start moving into the new Indonesian capital of Nusantara next year.

Like with Genting Highlands, a Borneo Highlands casino, of course, cannot be just a stand-alone tourist attraction. Indeed, it must be the catalyst for developing a comprehensive and wholesome, family-oriented resort that can be enjoyed by all, locals and foreign visitors alike.

A local observer discussing with this writer the possibility of a casino on Sarawak soil noted that it may be the best antidote against the unregulated and illegal but thriving local betting and gambling business.

As with all so-called sin businesses, legalising them is often not so much encouraging them as bringing out of the shadows what everyone knows to be already in existence.

Also, there is no reason to treat sin taxes collected from legalised gambling any differently from taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, for example.

Smuggled cigarettes and alcohol are readily available in Sarawak, probably because its long coastline makes anti-smuggling policing particularly onerous. This often makes any discussion about the benefits of increased sin taxes moot.

A casino located in the only state without any official religion should also remove any likely political and/or religious controversy such an establishment may otherwise generate.

The existence of two casinos in Singapore may be positive proof that the city-state founder Lee Kuan Yew's fears that casinos will bring in their wake social ailments and even criminal activities are largely unfounded.

There is little question that Sarawak, which has for decades tried to turn tourism into a sustainable growth industry, needs fresh thinking on how best to realise its dreams for tourism success.

An intelligent and unemotional open discussion on the merits (and demerits) of a casino in the Borneo Highlands is a good place to start.

If it materialises, the second Malaysian casino must not only be a guaranteed tourist draw for high-rollers in the region, it must also be a beacon to advertise the social tolerance, moderation and harmony that Sarawakians want to project to the rest of the country and the world.

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