PBH a boon for East Malaysia tourism

The highway marks a significant milestone in advancing tourism, connecting rural communities and catalysing economic advantages 


THE Pan Borneo Highway (PBH) is Malaysia’s biggest road project that spans over 2,000km which journey dates back to the 1960s and was expected to complete by 2021. 

However, the Covid-19 pandemic had put a major setback on the progress of the multibillion-ringgit project. 

Now, post-pandemic, the project resumed and it is said to be fully completed and operational by 2030. 

Despite all the challenges, both the federal and Sabah state governments have assured the public of the beneficial impact of stimulating the economy, as well as other gains through the PBH. 

The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) explores why enhancing connectivity between these Borneo states and neighbouring countries is crucial to the economy’s development. 

Liew hopes the PBH will generate a wide range of economic spillover effects across various industries (pic: BERNAMA)

Sabah Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Christina Liew shared that once the PBH is completed, it will help to enhance connectivity to and between Sabah’s 27 districts that have many unique and distinct tourism attractions. 

“This potential economic impact on the comprehensive alignment of the highways, which cover many parts of Sabah, makes it highly conducive to economic growth in Sabah, especially in areas that were not accessible before,” Liew told TMR. 

She said roads have long been seen as agents of socio-economic change in rural areas which act to accelerate the processes of social and economic transformation, thus, good road infrastructure will add value to the Sabah tourism industry. 

Affirming that ease of movement between districts will definitely enhance tourism in Sabah, she said the PBH network will encourage domestic and international tourists to travel by road, which will encourage them to extend their length of stay in Sabah. 

In fact, all communities located along the road alignment and intermediate locations where traffic regularly stops will benefit as the ease of access will increase the numbers of both domestic and international visitors to these areas. 

“This will create a potential boom in the services catering to them, such as lodges, restaurants, shops, tour and travel agencies, as well as transportation services,” she added. 

Furthermore, local businesses, including rural tourism attractions, local products, handicraft vendors and sightseeing services, will also benefit. 

According to the Sabah tourism minister, areas in the PBH network, especially the new route alignment will definitely gain the most benefit as it will shorten overland journey and allow more time to experience rural attractions in a particular district. 

Among tourist attractions that will gain most would be those in northern Sabah, such as the districts of Kota Belud and Kudat. 

“I am sure the new Pan Borneo coastal road from Tuaran to Kudat will help to shorten travel time, encouraging more visitors to stop by our tourism attractions in that area, such as the Tip of Borneo at Simpang Mangayau and the many community-based tourism products in the Kota Belud, Kota Marudu and Pitas districts,” Liew explained. 

She further shared that the PBH will serve as the backbone of Sabah, hoping it will generate a wide range of economic spillover effects across various industries, including logistics, tourism, wholesale and retail trade, and even new township developments. 

Strongly believing that a good road network will not just shorten travelling time, Liew said it also encourages self-drive tourism. 

Self-drive tourism opportunities are often advocated as a strategy for economic development in rural and regional areas. 

To boot, Sabah recorded 369,538 domestic and international visitors coming by road through Sindumin in 2022, and as of June this year, the state recorded 288,865 visitors through Sindumin. 

Therefore, to further boost socioeconomic development of Sabah, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) will promote self-drive tourism and encourage visitors to venture further to other parts of the state, apart from Kota Kinabalu. 

Datuk Tan Kok Liang, a veteran tourism operator, told TMR that once the highway is fully operational, its accessibility will create tourism opportunities in terms of tourism products, land transport, accommodation, and food and beverages (F&B). 

“Poor road accessibility in the past has stiffened tourism growth and promotions of rural tourism products. 

“The completion of the PBH will enhance tourism promotions of Borneo Island as a whole, making tourism packages more affordable and exciting,” he said. 

Tan believed that after the completion of the highway, tourism products will be created for holiday-makers and provide opportunities for foreign visitors to travel overland rather than using the traditional flight arrangements. 

The PBH offers opportunities to grow tourism between Sabah and its neighbouring regions in Kalimantan, Indonesia, and Brunei. 

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) Sabah chairman Christina Kong said there are several initiatives being planned to attract tourists from neighbouring countries upon completion of the highway. 

Also sharing similar sentiments as Liew’s, Kong said the highway can enhance cross-border accessibility, making it easier for tourists from Kalimantan and Brunei to travel into Sabah by road as this can appeal to those seeking road trips and self-drive adventures. 

She suggested that collaboration between countries to simplify visa requirements and streamline border entry procedures can make it easier for tourists to enter Sabah. 

Also, implementing visa-free or visa-on-arrival arrangements could facilitate cross-border travel. 

Besides, Kong said that joint promotional campaigns highlighting the PBH as a scenic route connecting these neighbouring countries with Sabah could boost interest. 

She further noted that tour operators and travel agencies can create cross-border tourism packages that incorporate attractions in Kalimantan, Brunei and Sabah, thus providing a seamless experience. 

There are also opportunities to promote cultural and ecotourism exchange programmes and encourage visitors to explore the unique cultures, traditions and natural wonders of the regions. 

“These exchanges can nurture a sense of shared heritage and adventure,” she said. With strategic initiatives and regional cooperation, the highway can catalyse growth. 

The completion of the PBH presents significant opportunities for Sarawak’s tourism industry, says Sherrina (pic source: businesseventssarawak.com)

Meanwhile, Sabah’s next-door neighbour, Sarawak, shared a similar opinion. 

Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts Sarawak (MTCP) Permanent Secretary Datu Sherrina Hussaini said the completion of the PBH presents significant opportunities for Sarawak’s tourism industry. 

Sherrina told TMR that connectivity plays a significant role because the PBH gives visitors access to various tourism products and experiences. 

As highlighted in the Post-Covid-19 Development Strategy 2030, enhancing accessibility and connectivity was a key initiative for growing Sarawak’s tourism. 

The PBH is expected to bring tremendous multiplier effects to Sarawak’s tourism industry and benefit tourism operators across the value chain including hoteliers, tour operators, transport operators, handicraft vendors, homestay operators and other industry players. 

Sherrina explained that the highway will certainly enhance the connectivity in Sarawak as it will enable the visitors to have better access to various tourism products especially in rural areas. 

This will lead to an increase in tourist arrivals and robust economic growth, she said. 

For businesses, it will stimulate productivity among industry players as it will reduce the time taken to deliver raw materials, especially to rural areas and lower logistics costs, thus leading to higher productivity. 

On challenges that may arise post-PBH, Liew opined that the only challenge the highway may face is the need to sustain the quality of the road. 

“I believe the highway will be used not only by light vehicles but also heavy vehicles, which in turn will cause quality downgrades overtime. 

“Hence, road maintenance funds should be made available by the federal government to ensure that the PBH will be always maintained,” she commented. 

Sherrina also suggested proper signage can be put up along the highway to direct visitors to local tourist attractions. 

Overall, the completion of the PBH is a major milestone for boosting Sabah’s and Sarawak’s tourism, enhancing connectivity to rural communities and stimulating widespread economic benefits. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition