Whenever we talk about tourism in Sarawak, we usually imagine tourists coming to experience our food, culture and natural resources.
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This comes on the back of the state’s tourism industry rapidly expanding, and its growth has not been limited to just visitors looking to take a break.
This growth has been contributed by our growing meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) scene.
How could it not be with our 5,000 to 10,000 person capacity in iconic venues like the state-of-the-art Borneo Convention Centre Kuching (BCCK), newly established incubator facilities and refurbished unique historic buildings.
Sarawak has definitely become a pretty ideal spot for MICE events, but business and pleasure are not the only reasons why tourists are coming to Sarawak anymore.
One potential tourism spin-off in Sarawak that isn’t too widely talked about is educational tourism (edu-tourism).
Normally, we hear about students heading off to exotic places such as Australia, the US, and the UK to further their studies after SPM or STPM but times are changing now as more and more students are instead choosing to stay put within the state.
Over the years, Sarawak’s educational landscape has changed greatly with more local institutions popping up and several globally recognised private universities and institutions opting to expand their campuses into Sarawak.
Most notably, Australian universities Swinburne and Curtin have set up sister campuses in the state and have manged to sway not only local students to enrol into their courses but also a large majority of international students as well.
This increasing trend of international students studying in Sarawak has demonstrated the viability of developing the state into an education hub.
Commenting on the current situation, Minister for Tourism, Arts, Culture, Youth and Sports, Datuk Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah commended the uptake in international students over the years and explained that the phenomenon has been partly driven by our environment.
“This is again is partly due to our conducive environment, we are much cheaper in terms of cost of living compared to countries such as Australia and Singapore and we are very safe with our low crime rates.
“We have a great environment for studying and with facilities such as internet and connectivity picking up right now, this is an opportune moment for this kind of tourism to be promoted and private education institutions to expand into Sarawak,” he said.
“Of course, they must be genuine because we do not want students enrolling into so called universities only to find out that the degrees that were being offered are not genuine,” he stressed.
Pushing for more collaboration with foreign institutions
While there hasn’t been any news in the pipeline of potential new universities wanting to foray into Sarawak of late, our local institutions have instead been working hard to grow through collaborative efforts with foreign institutions, especially with those from China.
Local home grown Nusantara Information Technology Institute (NIIT College) for one has been in the news lately with its efforts to capitalise on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through collaboration with established Chinese Universities for student exchange programmes.
The programme is expected to draw in more local students while also helping the college to potentially recruit more international students and academic instructors form China.
“We (Regal Group) are collaborating with local NIIT College and together we are aiming to have more collaborations with other higher learning institutions from China under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” said Dominic Su, chief executive officer (CEO) of Regal Group of Companies (Regal Group).
“Under this programme, students have a chance to obtain scholarships from Chinese higher learning institutions and further their studies in China. Currently, there are 11 students studying in Beijing under this scheme and we are hoping to send more students this year,” he explained
“And from this collaboration, we are also looking to attract students from China to come to Kuching to study. I believe this area of education tourism is an area we can do more one because Kuching is still relatively cheap and safe compared to other countries,” he added.
Emphasising that the attractiveness of Sarawak as a destination for higher learning was not anyone’s personal opinion but the opinion of Chinese groups that are involved in the higher education industry, Su added that another attraction of Sarawak to Chinese students is cultural similarities.
“We are also quite similar in terms of environment and in terms of culture for these Chinese students. They find that coming to Kuching, there are very little cultural barriers as they can communicate in Chinese with the local community and the environment is ideal as the weather is good and there is less pollution.
“So I think there is a lot of room for more Chinese students to study in Kuching or Sarawak. Regal and NIIT College as a platform and gateway player will definitely be exploring more on this,” he said.
When asked what kind of courses NIIT college might be considering in providing to international students, Su guided that it would likely be non-technical courses such as business and humanities studies.
So far NIIT College is involved in the BRI international universities alliance exchange programme which features 10 established universities from China and have separately inked an MoU with Beijing Wuzi University who specialises in futures, logistics management and purchasing management, for study exchange.
And the potential of collaborative efforts with foreign institutions is not just limited to private institutions as it was hinted that Unimas may very well be working on a few collaborations with institutions from Singapore and China to create more courses that will enhance their educational offerings and garner more traction from both domestic and international students.
Capitalising on good English
Meanwhile, another locally hatched institution, FAME International College (Fame), also aims to grow their international student intakes but are going for a slightly different route.
Rather than leveraging on collaborative efforts for student exchanges, Fame has instead decided to focus on promoting the strong English capabilities seen here in the state.
Targeting mainly Korean Universities and other countries where English is not widely used on the daily, the college is providing English Intensive courses.
According to the college, the aim of their English Intensive courses is to help build the students’ confidence in English while preparing them for IELTS examination and all of its components: reading, writing, speaking and listening.
The IELTS test of course is the world’s most recognised and used English language proficiency test for higher education and global migration in countries where English is used as the main language of communication. The test is insanely popular and recorded over 3 million tests taken in 2017.
IELTS prep courses have been a hit globally with countless number of educational institutions offering it. So to differentiate itself from the herd, FAME has also integrated an optional internship programme with their English Language Intensive course that would help prepare students for the workplace and utilise English in a practical environment.
The 16 week internship programme involves four weeks of English lessons and 12 weeks of internship. And to increase attractiveness of the programme, the college has also capitalised on the unique tourism offerings of Sarawak with extra-curricular activities such as excursions to tourist attractions, gastronomy tours, heritage and cultural tours and even basic Bahasa Melayu lessons included in the programme schedule.
While these courses were originally aimed towards mostly Korean universities, FAME has guided that their intake has also included students from China, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam and even Papua New Guinea.
Besides that, FAME also guides that their other courses such as diplomas, degrees, foundation studies and ACCA accreditation are also open towards potential international students to enrol in.
Seeing a similar trend, private educational institutions offering primary and secondary education such as Lodge International School, Borneo International School and St Joseph’s International School have also seen an increasing number of international students enrolling.
It seems that the main attractiveness is that as schools with curriculums taught in English, they offer international students a chance to gain strong English capabilities that they otherwise would not have in their own home countries.
Students seen in these schools come from a variety of nations, but predominately are from Indonesia, South Korea and Russia.
Barriers in getting more international traction
So far we’ve established that Sarawak with its multi-cultural community, strong English capabilities, and ideal environment has all the makings of being a strong educational hub for international students in the Asia Pacific.
And if successful, the influx of international students will definitely be a huge positive impact to the local economy as these international students and their visiting families will no doubt needs places to live, shop, eat and entertain themselves.
But the question that remains is: what else can we do to help encourage this sector?
According to NIIT College director Anderson Voon, there is plenty we can still do to work on the sector but the main barrier facing it is the lack of efficiency in the visa application process and the lack of flight connectivity in the state.
“The main barrier for Chinese students coming here is due to the longer visa processing application period and then of course there is our lack of connectivity,” he said.
“We do not have enough direct flights in Sarawak, so we lose out on potential students as their families will find it hard to come and visit them during their studies.
“With more efforts in linking up local and foreign institutions in educational exchange, we hope to create more overseas educational opportunities for Sarawakian students so that they can gain more exposure to cross-cultural learning experience.”
Eye on medical tourism
Another key segment that puts Sarawak on the map is medical tourism. In 2016, the healthcare travel industry in Malaysia grew by 23 per cent from 2015 and saw a total of 921,500 recorded travelers seeking medical treatment in Malaysia.
Travelers were mainly from Indonesia, Vietnam, China and India, and it is estimated that for 2016, the total contribution of the healthcare travel industry to the Malaysian economy was around RM4 to 5 billion.
Locally, Sarawak has no official figures for its medical tourists but it is understood to be on the rise.
Despite the increase however, local cardiologist Dr Tang Sie Hing opined that the traditional sense of medical tourism is not present in the state as the majority of medical tourists here are from our neighboring towns in Kalimantan and do not contribute to our economy the same way other medical tourists do due to our close proximity.
To grow this segment of medical tourists, he believes that the state’s current conditions and healthcare industry are sufficient enough to sustain itself but should want to aim for tourists from further way, there would need to be some changes.
In order for this to happen however, Dr Tang guided that more resources is necessary into developing the state’s tourist attractions and facilities.
“Medical tourism should be seen as part of the package and not as the whole package. The whole package should be: “Hey, let’s go on a holiday and by the way, we can get a Health screening while we’re here,” he told BizHive Weekly.
“Penang is doing this type of tourism the best in Malaysia, they have people from East Kalimantan flying into KL and transiting into Penang and when they’re there they tour what Penang has to offer and drop by a hospital to get their health checked or to get a small operation.
“In Kuching, however, we are unable to do that because we still do not have that something special to offer. Medical tourism needs to be seen as a spin-off of the main core activities in tourism in order to be successful.
“That is why tourists go to Korea because so many tourists’ attractions and they can get some procedures done there too. This is why tourists go to Bangkok because there is so much to eat and see there and they can get some work done there too,” he said.
“It must be seen as a whole package because they (the tourists) will not fly into Kuching just to get plastic surgery or health screening because there are plenty of other attractive tourist destinations that offer the same services,” he stressed.
Agreeing with Tang, another medical specialist who declined to be named explained that technically we do have medical tourism but Sarawak is attracting the low end of medical tourism and not the high end.
Like Dr Tang, the medical professional suggests that we should instead be targeting the high end of medical tourism – tourists who are not here because they are in dire straits but because they just wanted cheaper medical procedures than they would have gotten back home all while touring Sarawak.
Better doctors still needed
In saying that however, Dr Tang added that improvement of our current healthcare industry should not be neglected as the state still needs to build up its reputation in providing top quality medical care in order for medical tourism to thrive.
Citing Bali as an example, he pointed out that only having top class tourist attractions and facilities is not enough to attract the interests of tourists seeking healthcare solutions if there is an established reputation of the local healthcare industry.
In Sarawak he opines that the standard of care in private hospitals is good but has room for improvement.
To grow our medical tourism sector and ultimately our entire medical industry, Dr Tang asserted that we should be practicing social engineering in our community in order to build up a local force of competent medical professionals.
With 60 per cent of doctors in Singapore being Malaysian, it’s no secret that we have an issue with our doctors and medical professionals being in diaspora.
“For us in Kuching to survive, we have to be focusing on home grown doctors, people who live here. Because these are the people that will actually stay back so it futile to dream about getting the top doctors that are currently overseas to uproot and return,” he said.
“One of the reasons why our doctors who go overseas to study medicine in very established universities only to never come back is because they have already established their lives there.
“Their spouses are American or British and their children have never lived here. If you bring them back here, they will find it very hard to adapt to the new environment,” he explained.
Giving an example, Dr Tang revealed that there was a case where two respectable and highly trained doctors ended up coming back to Sarawak in order to settle back into their hometowns but they faced trouble as their children who were born overseas were unable to cope with the change.
“After two years here, they gave up and moved back to England. Not because they wanted to but because their children were confused and unable to adapt to the culture shock. For the sake of the children they moved back.
“So that is why we need home grown doctors, ones that went to UM or Unimas, ones that have worked their way up in SGH, ones that have their lives here and ones that have eventually gone into private here.
“Doctors are not born in a day, it takes 15 years to train them so the best way to capture people is to support our local home-grown doctors,” he declared.
In order to support local doctors, Dr Tang guides that perhaps Sarawak could take a leaf from Singapore’s social engineering efforts and start nurturing and guiding potential doctors and medical professionals even while they are still in medical
“We should be providing them with opportunities throughout their career, identify the top students in unimas and offer them opportunities to train their skills and to further their studies at top intuitions around the
“By the time they’re done with their studies and training, they will be rooted in Sarawak and you will have top class doctors working locally.
“If we want to pursue medical tourism, these are the things that we should be doing.”