If you were to go to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah these days, you would probably see plenty of foreign tourists moving about the streets in the city. Usually scantily dressed, they are enjoying the glorious tropical sun and humidity.
The Sabah travel industry has been waiting to get this kind of tourist vibe, which had been missing because of Covid-19. I have told each and every one of my Sabah friends to treasure and appreciate the fact that they are getting a healthy number of tourist arrivals.
I stayed at a seafront hotel located along Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens in KK twice in 2021. Back then, the city only had a few tourists. But, in August 2023, the vibe on the waterfront was particularly exhilarating, with people flocking to the pubs and F&B outlets there to enjoy the view of the mesmerising sun, faintly glowing as it makes its way down the horizon over the South China Sea.
In the distance, the many islets dotting the seascape off the city’s coast are like stars glittering in the night sky, dancing in the crystal clear azure blue sea. What an invigorating view!
The Land Below the Wind appears to have captured the hearts of many travellers – in particular, the South Koreans – yearning for a rustic charm and down-to-earth ambience.
The city’s coastline is bustling with hotels, pubs, eateries, a Filipino market, several large shopping malls and a jetty. At Gaya Street, you can find some of the city’s most popular old-time coffeeshops that serve bak kut teh, seafood noodles, laksa and other local favourites. The entire place could be as busy as Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang area, although over 80% of the tourists here are from South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, especially family groups.
Sabah boasts bountiful tourist resources that are perfect for an unusual travel experience for the whole family, including its verdant highlands and deep blue sea.
Additionally, the richly diverse multicultural people of Sabah are totally easy-going, friendly and approachable.
Indeed, Sabah with its vast expanse of land boasts among the most enviable natural ecosystem resources anywhere on this planet. Here you will still find virgin forests that are 130 million years old in Danum Valley (Lahad Datu), along with the habitats of adorable orang utans, proboscis monkeys and sun bears.
Also, the Sipadan marine park has been touted as among the best scuba diving spots in the world, while the towering Mount Kinabalu, which stands at 4,095m, is very popular with adventure tourists.
Most importantly, Sabah has always been an important hub for sea and air travel in the South China Sea area, as the state is strategically located at the northeastern corner of the main Borneo island. Geographically, or historically, Sabah has remained a charming destination for many modern-day international travellers.
But let’s talk about the Filipino market (now renamed Kota Kinabalu Handicraft Market, although nobody really calls it that) in town, which is pretty unique, to say the least. There are about 100 stalls at the market and vendors are happily interacting with tourists ... although most of the former can hardly speak English. Because of this, “hand language” is the predominant way of communicating in this buzzing market.
To cater to shoppers from various countries, the stuff on sale here are tagged not only in English but also in Hangul (Korean) and Chinese, with the prices clearly marked. I notice that seasonal fruits such as durian, rambutan, mangosteen and mango are much sought after by the shoppers.
Foreign visitors are also seen standing in front of stalls buying ikan bilis, dried shrimp and other preserved local seafood, with many discussing with vondors on ways to get these products back to their home country.
Tourists are also interested in trying dishes such as barbecued fish, sambal kangkung and other mouth-watering treats. I thought to myself, “These shops can really bring in business – good enough to feed an entire village.”I truly feel happy for the travel operators in Sabah, but ... please don’t overcharge your guests.
Generally speaking, though, while this problem does exist in KK, most of the tour guides and general travel service providers in the city are doing their jobs conscientiously and responsibly.
Nevertheless, tourists who take the boats in Semporna to get to the beautiful islands will grumble that they have been charged exorbitant prices for sub-standard services. Moreover, the environment in Semporna has become so undesirable nowadays, with marine debris and empty water bottles floating all around. You can blame it on irresponsible visitors (and to an extent, some locals) who have destroyed Sabah’s otherwise pristine natural ecosystem.
Does that mean that the once majestically beautiful Sabah will one day be reduced to an unsightly dumpling ground? Yes, if this problem is not contained.
While driving from Sandakan to KK (over 320km), you will notice that much of the land along the way has been turned into oil palm plantations. Where have all the forests gone?
Recently, local authorities have proposed a plan to relocate the KK International Airport out of the city. Although this project is currently still being discussed and debated, I think it would be a massive blunder if this were to become a reality some years down the road. Perhaps Sabah needs to learn from the whole KLIA-Subang airport debacle.
Governments around the world are trying to build their airports as close to the major population centres as possible to be economically viable. Unless KK is an enormous metropolis of three million inhabitants, densely packed office towers and residential areas, there are no good reasons to move the existing airport so far away from the city centre.
The politicians in Sabah should seriously assess which are the most urgent and priority issues for KK’s current development, and how it will affect the state in the next hundred years.
I think the most urgent matter now is to fix the problem of illegal settlers in the state, which is utterly crucial in preserving the integrity of Sabah’s multi-cultural communities.
Secondly, the state budget should be prudently spent on the construction and upgrading of more comprehensive road and rail networks in the state.
Thirdly, the existing international airport should be upgraded, its toilets cleaned up, immigration counters better illuminated, and immigration clearance procedures digitalised and optimised.
Lastly, stop cutting down trees and replacing the forests with plantations. Lest we forget, the most splendid of Sabah’s resources is its natural and cultural heritage. Preserve our natural ecosystem for the enjoyment of our future generations.
During the MCO, I took groups of travel buddies all across Sabah, up the hills, down the sea and deep into the jungles. I never thought that right within our own country there were still untouched majestic forests with a wealth of flora and fauna comparable to that of the Amazon in South America. I would like to urge the Sabah authorities to please treasure and cherish this amazing Land Below the Wind,
The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.
Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 137 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.