KOTA KINABALU: Known as the "Iron Lady" of Sabah tourism, the late Datuk Irene Benggon Charuruks will always be remembered for her contributions towards turning the state into a renowned national and international tourist destination.
From her former colleagues at the Sabah Tourism Board (STB) to tourism industry players and government officials, all agree she was the driving force behind the rise of Sabah as a top tourism destination in Malaysia.
Charuruks, who passed away at 4pm on Monday (Feb 15) at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital after a brief and sudden illness, helmed the STB as general manager for 25 years before her retirement five years ago in March 2016.
Charuruks, who was 70 at the time of her passing, was known for guiding the state's fledgling tourism industry into a multi-billion-ringgit concern through the introduction of numerous tourism products and lobbying international tour agencies to bring in the crowds.
Current STB general manager Noredah Othman said Charuruks was personally convinced that Sabah was a great tourism destination and she drove that message home to everyone she met.
"She was our driving force and a matriarch for us. She instilled in us the belief that Sabah was a great destination.
"Her passion and commitment went beyond words and accolades. She taught us, and me especially, that doing our best is not enough... we must believe in and appreciate (Sabah) above all else," said Noredah, who looked to
Charuruks as a mentor.
She said Charuruks nurtured the industry from "a baby to adulthood" and was instrumental in the development of key tourism and cultural events as well pushing for greater accessibility by air.
"Most people call her Iron lady but for us at STB, she was a combination of a boss, mother, aunt, friend and most of all, our pillar," she said.
Noredah said that Charuruks was known to international tourism players and maintained good relations with ambassadors in Malaysia including those from Britain, Australia and the United States as well as other foreign consuls in Sabah.
Among the tourism events credited to her are Sabah Fest, Regatta Lepa, Tamu Besar, Sandakan Memorial Day and the Borneo Birdwatching event among a host of others.
Former state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun (who is now Local Government and Housing Minister) also credited Charuruks as one of the driving forces in Sabah tourism.
Masidi said many of the tourism programmes introduced by her were models for other states to follow.
Masidi added that Charuruks leveraged on Sabah's natural beauty like its forests, parks and islands to make it a key destination.
Charuruks leaves behind her husband Sevee Charuruks and children Devi, Rani and Zuhan.
She will be buried on Friday (Feb 19); her body is currently at the Fook Lu Siew funeral parlour here.