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A stream in a cave at the Mulu National Park in Sarawak. The state is aiming to pull in five million tourists with its natural attractions, multi-ethnic people and good infrastructure. Pix by Rambli Ahmad

THREE months ago, Eunice Sandi-Moyo led a delegation comprising members of the Zimbabwean industry and tourism players from the province of Bulawoyo to Malaysia to explore potential business collaborations.

The provincial affairs minister, together with her entourage, made a pit stop in Sarawak to search for an “indigenous set-up of cultural tourism” module, which perhaps, could be applied in Bulawayo, which is the second largest city in Zimbabwe.

Sandi-Moyo’s group did not know what to expect when they arrived at Kuching International Airport as the trip was their first to the Land of the Hornbills.

“All I see are wonders, including the warmth of the people here,” she said at a dinner hosted by the state government in conjunction with her visit on March 17.

All this while, she had only heard about and adored the greenery of the forests and richness of Sarawak’s biodiversity from advertisements on television and in magazines.

Her appreciation of natural resources was understandable as Bulawoyo is also the gateway to Matobo National Park — a 44,500ha reserve housing the Matobo Hills rock formations and stone age cave art, which were recognised as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage Site in 2003.

She also spoke on the richness of the diverse cultures in Sarawak, which she concluded after the group’s visit to the Sarawak Cultural Village in Santubong and a handicraft centre in Petra Jaya.

“What is great about your state is you keep welcoming. There is so much that I want to say.

“We are so amazed that we want to be the ambassador to those who have not visited the state before,” said Sandi-Moyo in calling for collaborations between Sarawak and Bulawoyo to promote tourism in both places.

Sandi-Moyo’s views on Sarawak had been expressed by many international and local figures, who were impressed with the state’s natural treasures and its racial integration among people from diverse cultures.

Among them was 1Malaysia Foundation trustee Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, who acknowledged that the integration of various ethnic groups had helped to develop the state in many sectors, including tourism.

“Apart from Sabah, Sarawak is a good example of what the people can do to bring about greater integration and unity in helping to promote moderation.”

Lee said this was among the reasons that compelled the foundation to declare Kuching the first “City of Unity” in the country.

Recently, top budget airline AirAsia Bhd had voiced commitment to help develop Sarawak into a top holiday destination.

“We feel that there is a lot of growth potential in Sarawak. Kuching, which has a lot of potential in the tourism sector, can be the gateway to Borneo,” said AirAsia chief executive officer Aireen Omar.

She was elaborating on the carrier’s long-term plan to transform Sarawak into its regional hub in Borneo.

The compliments and support expressed by Sandi-Moyo, Lee and Aireen came as “good news” to the state government, which had fixed a target of attracting five million tourist arrivals this year.

Concerns, however, were raised on whether the state had enough facilities to cope, including hotels and airports, to support its target and aspiration to become a top holiday destination.

The Kuching International Airport (KIA), said Aireen, was about to reach full capacity as it was built to handle up to five million people per annum.

Such fears were allayed by State Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah.

“I am enthusiastic to see tourists coming in bigger numbers. Having said that, we also have to look into the facilities currently available to support the tourism industry.

“The state government is in the midst of looking into upgrading facilities to ensure that there are sufficient facilities to meet tourists’ demand.

“We want tourists to have good memories when they visit Sarawak,” he said.

The RM1 billion investment by the state government to upgrade information and communication technology infrastructure is also expected to boost the tourism sector.

It will be exciting to see how the industry in Sarawak will flourish as the state begins the process of digitising its economy.

Adib Povera born in Kuala Lumpur and raised in Perak, is NST Sarawak bureau chief. A nature lover, he never tires of discovering new sights in the Land of the Hornbills. He can be reached via [email protected]

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