SEMPORNA, Aug 12 – For Sabah tour agencies, the enforcement of the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) on June 10 has been like a lifeline as they could finally resume their activities that had been stagnant for three months due to the MCO.
Last month, a group of journalists from Sabah were taken on a familiarisation trip to Semporna and some of the idyllic islands located on the Celebes Sea to see for themselves how domestic tourism is faring in the new normal era where tourism players and tourists have to observe strict standard operating procedures (SOPs) to safeguard themselves against COVID-19.
Organised by Sabah Tourism Association in collaboration with Tourism Malaysia Sabah and MASwings – Malaysia Airlines Bhd’s sister company that operates regional flights in Sabah and Sarawak – the four-day/three-night trip was also participated by social media influencers and representatives from the Sabah Tourism Association, Tourism Malaysia Sabah and MASwings.
Resorts in the Semporna area are in general experiencing a gradual improvement in business but Semporna Tourism Association chairman Jamilah Ang Kher Lern hoped that the state authorities would look into the steep airfares for flights to Sabah.
“The number of tourists coming to Semporna is still low and most of the visitors are from Sabah itself. Not many are coming from Peninsular Malaysia because the flight tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and Tawau (where the nearest airport to Semporna is located) are rather expensive,” she said.
Jamilah also hoped that the state’s international border will reopen in stages beginning next month to allow foreign tourists from green-zone countries to enter Sabah, saying that the move will help to revive the state economy and local tourism industry.
According to media reports last month quoting Sabah Deputy Chief Minister and state Tourism and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew, the Sabah government aims to reopen its borders for the arrival of international tourists by Sept 1 this year.
She said this would be done by heeding the advice of the Ministry of Health and the relevant SOPs.
This writer was among the media personnel who went on the familiarisation trip to Semporna, which is located on the southeast of Sabah’s coast and is the gateway to dive havens like Pulau Mabul and Kapalai, as well as the stunning Tun Sakaran Marine Park that consists of eight islands surrounded by reefs and the clear aquamarine water.
On the first day of our tour, we left Semporna for Pulau Mabul on a boat. Forty-five minutes later, we reached Seahorse Sipadan Scuba Lodge where we were welcomed by the resort owner Madzafar Madzahla and Semporna Bumiputera Tour Operators Association chairman Kerino Jalani. We were later given a briefing on the resorts in Pulau Mabul. I also took advantage of my stay there to feast my eyes on the beautiful sunset.
Pulau Mabul has a population of about 2,000, mainly comprising people from the Bajau and Suluk ethnic groups.
Madzafar said Pulau Mabul’s tourism is picking up and as of this month, he has received nearly 60 online bookings from domestic travellers.
Tun Sakaran Marine Park was on top of our itinerary on the second day, with our first destination being Pulau Bohey Dulang which is one of the eight islands that make up the marine park.
The key attraction on this island is climbing up the Bohey Dulang hill, which is 300 metres above sea level, leisurely (it takes about 45 minutes along the 700-metre walking track to get to the peak) and enjoying the magnificent views of the island’s tropical forests that are home to exotic species of birds, as well as the shimmering turquoise waters of the sea.
According to Sabah Parks ranger Suryan Azizi, Pulau Bohey Dulang, Pulau Mantabuan and Pulau Sibuan are three of the must-visit islands of Tun Sakaran Marine Park.
He said between January and March this year, 28,562 domestic and international tourists were reported to have visited Pulau Bohey Dulang.
Besides Bohey Dulang, Mantabuan and Sibuan, the other islands that make up Tun Sakaran Marine Park are Bodgaya, Selakan, Tetagan, Maiga and Sebangkat. The islands and the surrounding reefs – Church Reef and Kapikan Reef – were gazetted as a marine park on July 22, 2004.
After our visit to the marine park, we returned to Pulau Mabul for some scuba diving, snorkelling and kayaking activities. This writer did not miss the chance to go snorkelling and get a glimpse of Mabul’s underwater paradise – colourful coral reefs and a variety of marine life including the seahorse, sea eel, fire goby fish, crocodile fish and pipefish.
Among Mabul’s popular dive sites are Seaventure, Lobster wall, Panglima Reef and Garden Eel. We spent our second night on this island at Borneo Divers Mabul Resort.
Our last destination for this trip was Kapalai where we got to stay at the exclusive Sipadan Kapalai Dive Resort, which is built on stilts on the shallow sandbanks of the Ligitan Reefs and is just a 10- to 15-minute speedboat ride from the dive spots of Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul.
As per the new norms, all the hotels we stayed in observed the essential SOPs such as taking and recording the temperature of guests and practising physical distancing at the lobby area and restaurants.