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Wednesday July 28, 2010

Sibu-Kapit boat operators mull their fate

EXPRESS boat operators plying the Sibu-Kapit route are expecting the worst as they may be forced to cease operations once the Sibu-Kapit road is completed.

Work on the road has started and is scheduled for completion in five to 10 years.

There are six companies which operate 118 boats one-way on the route by river daily. These companies have been in the business for more than two decades and enjoy brisk business during festive seasons when people rush for their homes.

The scene at the express-boat wharf is a colourful one at the end of May as Gawai Dayak revellers crowd the place to catch boats home to Kapit, Song and Belaga.

Sadly, this scenario will be another chapter in the history of Sibu when the road is completed as people will be able to travel by road, which is faster and easier.

Modern: A doubledecker express boat berthing at the terminal.

Express bus companies will take over the business and the express boats may cease to exist.

Express Boat Association chairman of the 3rd, 6th and 7th divisions, Ting Chu Wong, was apprehensive about the future of the express boat business.

It is highly likely that the operators would face the same fate as their counterparts who operated boats between Sibu and Bintulu and Sibu and Sarikei, he said.

These operators were doing well until the completion of the Pan Borneo Highway and the Sibu-Sarikei road, he added.

“With the Sibu-Kapit road in the pipeline, we will face a similar fate for sure,” he said.

When news broke that the Sibu-Kapit road, which had long been requested by the people, would finally be built, the express boat operators started to worry over their rice bowl, said Ting.

“They spent close to RM10mil on each boat. Some of them have new fleets of boats and are still servicing bank loans.

Modern facility: The Sibu express boat terminal.

“The association cannot help much in this aspect. They should decide whether to continue in the business or to venture into other businesses when the road is completed,” he added.

Ting said that members of the association were yet to discuss the matter, adding that they would decide on the matter when the time came.

The business, he said, was not as rosy as perceived by many.

“During low seasons, only 12 boats operate one-way due to low passenger load. A journey from Sibu to Kapit takes three hours and the fare is RM20 for ordinary class and RM30 to RM35 for first class.”

The fare was cheap, compared to elsewhere in the country, he said.

“In the peninsula, a similar trip would cost a minimum of RM30.”

He said the operators received another blow recently when the Government raised the diesel price by five sen per litre.

Previously, the operators bought diesel at a subsidised price of RM1.43 per litre, but had to pay RM1.48 now, he added.

“We have to bear the price rise. We can’t increase fares without the approval of the authority concerned,” he said.

Fishermen were getting a much better deal, he added.

“They get diesel at a cheaper rate of RM1.28 per litre. On top of this, they can raise the price of fish during low seasons,” he said.

He hoped the Government would allow them to pay the old price for diesel as most of the operators were trying hard to stay afloat.

The situation would be worse when the Sibu-Kapit road was completed, he added.

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