SARAWAK is capitalising on its unique attractions to woo tourism dollars from the meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions sector, said Deputy Tourism Minister Datuk Dr James Dawos Mamit.
"Some of Sarawak's assets and heritage have a natural advantage over Kuala Lumpur. For example, meetings on tropical peat, tribal tattoos or even gatherings of Foochows," he told Business Times in an interview.
In 2009, Malaysia welcomed 1.18 million business travellers who spent RM9.9 billion in flight tickets, hotel rooms, taxis and train fares, and for dining and shopping. Business travellers make up 5 per cent of total tourist arrivals, but the RM10 billion they spend in Malaysia makes up 19 per cent of total tourism receipts.
When asked to comment on a Netherlands-based environment activist group claiming that the expansion of oil palm plantations on peatland in Sarawak is based on faulty science, Mamit replied, "It is these kind of misunderstandings and mistaken perception of tropical peat that fuels the need for a more effective communication platform.
"Kuching recently won the bid to host the International Peat Congress (IPC) in 2016. It will be the first time an international gathering on peat soil science will be held in Asia. Here in the tropics, peatland is used as a planting medium for agriculture. Its content and usage is very much different from that in cold countries like the Netherlands where temperate peat is harvested for horticulture and exported as peat moss," he said.
"Some European countries, like Ireland, harvest it and burn it to generate electricity," he added. "We see the IPC 2016 as a good platform to disseminate the facts and field information on the development and conservation of tropical peat."
To this, Mamit referred to Sarawak Forestry's recent declaration that Sebuyau and Sedilu, covering 20,000ha and 5,000ha respectively, are now officially homes for orangutans.
Studies show there are about 2,500 orangutans in the wild in Sarawak. With the two new additions, Mamit said the six orangutan sanctuaries in Sarawak will boost eco-tourism activities.
The environment activist grouping also claimed that Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Sarawak's Tropical Peat Research Laboratory (TPRL) are carrying out pseudo scientific research in a desperate effort to justify the destruction of around a million hectares of peat swamp for palm oil production.
Mamit responded that the credibility of scientific researches is on the methodologies and he has utmost confidence that MPOB and TPRL's works will be able to withstand peer scrutiny.
In a separate interview, Miri Member of Parliament Datuk Seri Peter Chin concurred with Mamit that the environment activist group's claim that MPOB and TPRL's peat experiments are being paid by oil palm planters, is factually wrong.
"It's not true, it is factually wrong. The RM40 million allocated for peat research comes under the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006-2010). It is not funded by oil palm planters," he said.
When Chin was still helming the Plantation Industry and Commodities Ministry from 2004 to 2009, he was responsible for spearheading initiatives to facilitate peat soil research. He is now Energy, Green Technology and Water minister.
"How can it be said that research work being carried out by MPOB and TPRL are funded by the industry and therefore biased?" Chin questioned. "Peat soil research is of national interest and therefore, funded by the government. The experiments being carried out by MPOB and TPRL are adhering to international protocols and subjected to peer reviews," he said.
When asked why the activists are so quick and vehement in their criticism of the credible work being carried out by MPOB and TPRL scientists, Chin replied, "they may have their own agenda. Whatever these environment activists want to lobby, the truth on carbon emissions and sequestration shall prevail. "Science is a fact-finding process. Let us not succumb to or be misled by fear of the unknown," Chin added.
In a separate interview, Sarawak Convention bureau chairman Datuk Seri Dr Muhammad Leo Michael Toyad said it is important for Sarawak to expand its tourism industry further as it draws close to a million business visitors a year.
They collectively contribute around RM50 million to Sarawak's economy. Tourism is the state's third-largest employer, supporting one in every 10 jobs. "Business travellers spend three times more than an average leisure visitor," he said.
Muhammad Leo then highlighted the Anak Sarawak Award ceremony where associations and influential individuals who won bids for new national or international conventions are honoured for their commitment and dedication to bring in businesses to Sarawak. The fourth "Anak Sarawak Award 2010" themed Night of the Pharaohs - Victory Feast, was recently held at the Borneo Convention Centre in Kuching.
This year, Muhammad Leo said, there will be 42 new conventions to be held in Kuching. "We expect some 25,000 delegates to fly in and land an economic impact of about RM50 million," he said.