February 23, 2018
By Salahuddin Hisham
LAST Saturday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak made a trip to Langkawi and announced five infrastructure projects worth RM1.3 billion for the island.
They involve projects for water catchment, upgrading of Langkawi Hospital, building a new fire station and living quarters, and roads.
It should have attracted reaction from the Opposition, and the opportunity to discuss the development of Langkawi as a tourist destination. Unfortunately, a mishap at the Gunong Mat Cincang cable car attracted more attention and side-tracked into playful political exchanges.
Nevertheless, there was reaction from Parti Keadilan Rakyat who called it an election sweetener and someone from Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia described it as ‘dedak’ (chicken feed).
Honestly, it was not, but an allocation already made under the Third Rolling Plan under the 11th Malaysia Plan. The opposition failed to raise that.
The announcement by Najib should be seen within the context of an idea he mooted at the 2015 Langkawi Tourism Award to turn the island into the Monaco of the East.
Langkawi was to have a two-tier development as both a destination for mass tourism with its duty free status and high-end tourism for the well-heeled.
As Najib sees it, there are pockets of high-end tourism facilities and resorts like St Regis, Tanjung Rhu and Datai Bay. Developing the high-end segment will attract deep-pocket tourists and that would spur multiplier effects to the local economy and make available high-paying jobs for the locals.
The recent announcement was part of an on-going project to develop and upgrade the island’s basic infrastructure.
In 2017, when Najib touched again on Monaco, he announced a RM242 million housing project involving 5 blocks of 11-storey apartments that should be completed by next year (2019). Bear in mind, high-end Monaco has an acute public housing problems.
When it was announced, the usual sceptics could be heard. One that came out in the mainstream newspaper was critical of the excesses and hedonism linked to Monaco. Strangely the letter to the editor highlighted his preference for Phuket and Bali models of tourism.
Another view from a news portal similarly equate Monaco to casino, glamour icon of Princess Grace, the city’s Formula 1 circuit and James Bond with his sultry women. The London-based writer looked at it from the Singapore perspective.
Singapore was already a work-in-progress in that direction. Langkawi is seen to not be as aggressive as Singapore. There is a closer resemblance of Singapore to Monaco.
Najib’s idea of attracting high-end and luxury tourism was not meant to replicate Monaco.
The concept, focus, structure and features of Langkawi’s high end tourism should be uniquely suited to its culture, environment and resources. Najib is in the right direction to build the basic infrastructure and put together the proper plan than immediately jump into the pool.
At the end, her real reservation was the visible problems of litter, transport, and local attitude. Nevertheless, she has valid concerns.
Not only has Langkawi need to address litter problems, it has to address the problem of the waste management facility along Jalan Ayer Hangat. The incinerator failed to work for many years. The local concern is leachate seeping into the river leading to the nearby Kilim Geopark tourist destination.
Langkawi needs to improve its transportation for both locals and tourists. To attract high-end tourism, it needs more than the current expansion of the airport and existing quality of ferry service.
The concept for Langkawi’s tourism – be it for the mass market or high-end – should be nature and adventure. The usual activities associated to mass tourism such as shopping, theme parks, and restaurants should not spoil the delicate and pristine environment.
The tourism planner and locals must have a strong sense of appreciation and commitment to preserve the natural mangrove, forest, hills, coastline, river and creeks. The local drive to take economic opportunity to provide homestay, eateries and shops should make an effort to maintain aesthetics of the rural setting, fishing villages and agriculture farmlands.
The 4A-key factors for success in tourism of attraction, activities, accessibility and accommodation remains the same for high-end tourism but with emphasis on quality of service and the need for creativity, innovation and novelty.
The tourism planners need to understand the profile of high end tourist. They need to know the sort of attractions, activities, accessibility and facilities that appeal to them to splurge their money in Langkawi.
Their needs differ vastly from the usual mass market crowd and from another high end tourist. It can be quite eccentric but they are willing to pay for it.
For instance, Michael Schumacher is a regular visitor to Langkawi. In his hey day, he looked forward to Langkawi for rest and recreation, to be left alone and free to roam the island without being identified.
His favourite leisure pastime was to cycle around Langkawi.
The service provider may need to look into his security.
To fulfil the unique needs of each and every tourist, it requires a high standard of service that is beyond the usual expectation. The back end of the such services requires a tourism infrastructure and efficiency second to none.
Langkawi cannot rely on imported labour alone. It needs to have its own pool of trained and skilled workers. It needs to have its own human resource development program and a University and training centre dedicated to train locals for the tourism and services industry.
More important, Langkawi tourism development needs to redo the structure. The current structure of Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) needs to be revamped and transform their role from an approving agency to a tourism master planner.
A new structure should be incorporated and empowered like any local municipality to enable public services and planning approval to be in-sync with the tourism development plan. It is possible to efficiently merge the two roles into one.
Monaco and the other successful tourist destinations along the Cote d’Azur or French Reviera are small sovereign city-states known as principalities. Maybe it is not a bad idea to turn Langkawi into a principality of Kedah to preserve its distinct tourism character in which the economic benefit could be stream back to the state.
Not to forget, the economic activities of major tourist destinations are not only tourism-related but could also be the economic activities linked to the rich and famous. That is where the rest of Kedah and Malaysia can benefit.