KOTA KINABALU: White vans ferrying tourists from airports or parked near shopping malls, hotels and tourist attractions are a familiar sight in Sabah.
Those in the know, however, are well aware that they are run by unlicensed tour operators.
Sabah Association of Tour and Travel Agents chairman Datuk Seri Winston Liaw said many legal tour operators are openly annoyed with these illegal operators, but some are quietly outsourcing services to them to keep their business afloat.
This is because not all tour agencies are back to full operations because of the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, he said when contacted.
In Sabah, there are different rules for tour operators, guides and drivers for different areas.
“For example, for Sabah’s West Coast areas including Kota Kinabalu, there is a surplus in guide services since there is no influx of groups from China yet,” Liaw said, adding that 90% of local guides here were still unemployed.
Areas in the east coast like Tawau and Semporna are full of independent Chinese tourists who travel without going through tour agents, he said.
“But there is only one licensed tour guide for the whole Tawau and Semporna region, and there are no big tour buses there.
“If there is a group of more than 25 people, travel agents need to get a bus from the Kota Kinabalu area to the east coast,” he said.
Liaw said the Tourism, Culture and Environment as well as other related state ministries should look into this matter seriously and solve the problems immediately.
Without licensed tour buses, operators are forced to outsource to white van services and illegal guides, he said.
He said with the current volume of tourists still considered medium, many operators are not able to keep up with overhead costs and employee salaries.
To get a tour guide licence, one would need to fork out RM7,000, he said, adding that many companies cannot afford to hire permanent staff because of this.
Licences for tour buses also need to be renewed, and these buses also need a lot of money for maintenance, he added.
On the other hand, white vans are common and easy to rent or purchase, so that’s why there are more of them in the business.
Liaw suggested the government amend the current rules for licensed tour guides to enable guides in Kota Kinabalu to operate in the east coast as well.
He said many operators prefer to promote their business through social media and although they are legal travel agents, they might still engage services of white vans and unregistered guides.
“The government should take stern action against the operators of these illegal white vans and guides, who should be penalised with imprisonment when they are caught.
“And it is not only for this issue; anything regarding tourist violations should be handled swiftly and sternly,” he said.
Liaw also suggested that the tourism police and law enforcers who deal with tourists be trained properly as he believes there should be different approaches when dealing with tourists who violate laws unintentionally versus typical criminals.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang said he had frequently raised this issue over the past 14 years, but there has been no concrete solution taken by either federal or state government.
“So now, what is there to complain about when unlicensed and illegal operators move around in broad daylight?
“Just ask the authorities to position themselves at areas like Marina Court, The Loft Imago, 1Borneo Hypermall, Sutera Avenue, Jesselton Quay and Kota Kinabalu International Airport to see these operators,” he said.