Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, is an artist’s dream. On clear evenings people gather on the banks of the Sarawak river that flows through the city to enjoy the spectacular views as the sun sinks below the horizon turning the sky a vivid, orange and gold. The elegant colonial buildings and lush vegetation set against the backdrop of sculptural mountains create a sense of peace and tranquility unruffled by the financial turmoil in the rest of the world.
The state government, however, is well aware of the threat posed by the global financial crisis. Assistant Tourism Minister Hamden Ahmad warned that hotels and others working in tourism to brace themselves for a decline in the number of foreign visitors due to the current economic climate. At the same time, the tourism ministry has ambitious plans to increase the number of hotel rooms from about 5,000 to 10,000 next year.
Concern about prospects for the tourism industry was a theme taken up by a non-government organization, AZAM, which hosted a conference of the Commonwealth Journalists Association in Kuching. In a speech to delegates the CEO, Datu Aloysius Dris, was hopeful that the charms of Sarawak would continue to draw tourists despite the economic downturn. In fact the state could prove to be a haven for those seeking to escape from the prevailing sense of gloom elsewhere.
When Mr. Dris was asked to describe in a nutshell what made Sarawak unique. Without a moment’s hesitation he replied: “ It’s a mini-zone of peace. When visitors come here they often ask ‘ why are people so friendly and peaceful?”
He said this is something that has been part of Sarawak’s appeal dating back more than 200 years from pre-colonial days. “Throughout our history people have learned to get on with each other. Chinese, Malay and Arabic businessmen who have gone to the jungle, have learned the language of local tribes and many have settled among them.”
This tradition of peaceful co-existence can be attributed to Kuching’s historic position as a trading center, which, over the centuries, has drawn people from various countries to settle in the area. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and others have joined many indigenous groups of the region to create a city with a rich and unique cultural heritage.
Before the 19th century, Sarawak, was under the control of the Sultan of Brunei. Although Sarawak was a peaceful place it also experienced a period of unrest when local people revolted against the Brunei Empire over being forced to pay high taxes and other abuses of power.
In 1839 James Brooke, a rich English adventurer, was brought in to restore order and subsequently became the first English Rajah of Sarawak. His successor, Charles Brooke, was responsible for many of the historic buildings dotted across the city and along the waterfront. Kuching developed into a flourishing modern city after Sarawak became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
Returning to the present and the gloomy financial climate, Mr. Dris notes: “So far there has been no evident drop in the flow of tourists but if this does happen a fallback position would be to accelerate a drive for more tourists from the region such as Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries.” He said this was an approach that had been successfully tried and implemented in Australia.
Sarawak has a wealth of tourist attractions and the state authorities are robust in defending their commitment to environmental conservation. The state offers visits to rain forests to catch sight of the hornbill that is the state emblem or the ever-popular orangutans, the rare red-banded langur and other forms of wildlife. There are beaches, rivers and an extensive cave system with the largest cavern in the world. For the more adventurous there are opportunities to go climbing, trekking and diving.
In Kuching, it was heartening to find Chinese and Hindu temples located next to mosques. Local residents are jealously proud of the long tradition of co-operation among the different ethnic and religious groups and are anxious to preserve this.
Delegates from some twenty Commonwealth countries attended the CJA conference in Kuching. For most this was their first visit to the state. When the time came to leave all agreed that it was sad to go but vowed to return again with their families to enjoy the culture and rich heritage of Sarawak and the warmth and generosity of its people.