A Local Perspective on the Impact of Chinese Tourists in Kota Kinabalu

Words by Norman Harsono
Photos by Hamza Delbar and Hannah Reshma

Kota Kinabalu has witnessed a massive influx of mainland Chinese tourists over the past decade which correlates to China’s strengthening economy. Walking down the Heritage Walk, these tourists are generally distinguishable, other than by speaking mandarin, by a tendency to travel in tour groups and having a penchant for chic and urban fashion with brightly coloured accents. The city has adapted by providing mandarin translations for several street signs in tourist hotspots, many hotels and restaurants provide Chinese translations of their signs and brochures, and even GrabCar has adapted by introducing a special option of ‘GrabCar (Mandarin)’. But as with all forms of development, there is debate as to the impact these tourists have had in Kota Kinabalu.

Jimmy Wong Kui Hiung is a travel agent and the owner of City View Lodge. He’s born and raised in Kota Kinabalu. According to him, Chinese tourists began flocking into the city in the late 2000s when AirAsia opened the first direct flight from Macao to Kota Kinabalu. Shenzhen followed as the first city from mainland China to open a direct flight to the city, and at this moment he estimates that there are at least eleven flights per day from various airlines between China and the city.

2017-07-03-PHOTO-00000250Jimmy Wong Kui Hiung at Yuit Cheong coffeeshop. One of the oldest coffeeshops in town being at its sixth generation of owners.

The advantage of this tourist influx is of course that they stimulate the local economy. “They are high spenders,” says Jimmy. They travel in large groups, are very fond of the city’s seafood, purchase a lot of souvenirs, and stay in 3-star-and-above hotels. During peak season, there is even a shortage of hotels. Not coincidentally, The Hilton opened a new hotel in Kota Kinabalu last March. “The impact is great,” he comments.

Grace Leong is a tour guide for Kota Kinabalu and founder of the KK Heritage Walk: a route that takes travellers through some historical areas and buildings in the city. She even supplies a booklet, written by herself, titled ‘A Guide to KK Heritage Walk’ for those who  join her tour. While she agrees that these Chinese tourists have been economically beneficial for the city, she is more critical of their impact. She observes that Chinese tourists often behave inappropriately; breaching traffic regulation, littering, and being too noisy. She adds that in certain villages, their presences have caused prices to go up, to the disadvantage of locals. She cites that, for example, in some villages the price of a plate of ‘nasi lemak’ has risen from RM2 to RM10. Lastly, she herself is unhappy with the creation of new tour guides who do shoddy imitations of her work in order to satisfy the demand of Chinese tourists. She concludes saying that the city has to be careful when managing these tourists lest they do more harm than good.

DSC_0596A Chinese tour group, as identified by the mandarin they spoke, walk along Gaya Street. A popular street among tourists filled with old shop lots and part of the KK Heritage Walk

Jimmy does not deny having seen Chinese tourists display inappropriate behavior. He however argues that, firstly, these are a minority. In his experience, the majority of Chinese tourists do respect local regulation. He further argues that these inappropriately behaving tourists are a byproduct of ignorance instead of deliberate vandalism. In which case, the city is at fault for not having provided the necessary infrastructure to accommodate them. In regards to inflation he simply argues, “that’s very normal”. And indeed, rising prices is a feature of economic development.

Rositah is a housewife who has lived in Kota Kinabalu for twenty years. “Married a guy from here” she joked. She too has noticed a significant influx of Chinese tourists that began in the late 2000s and concurs with Jimmy’s opinion in that inappropriately behaved Chinese tourists are a minority group.

 “Its not everyone, maybe one or two out of ten. It is just like us. Not all Sabahans are good either.” she says.

She defends that there has never been a major incident with Chinese tourists and the citizens are generally happy with this influx of tourists.

Based on these three individuals, the general perception appears to be that Kota Kinabalu’s citizens accept the influx of Chinese tourists as it provides economic development. Criticisms against them do not represent the whole; only a minority has been seen guilty of such behavior and it is not fair to assume all Chinese tourists are alike.  In fact, it is not fair to assume that tourists of other nationalities do not conduct inappropriate behavior either. Nonetheless, it is agreed that the city can still do more to reduce such inappropriate behavior by informing these tourists, upon entering the city, such as by giving them informational brochures at the airport and translating more street signs.


Norman once covered a political rally in Jakarta a  news reporter. It was uneventful until a frontline protester with a serious face stared him down. After a few minutes, the protester whipped out his mobile phone and asked Norman to take a photo of him with his friends. Human behaviour fascinates Norman.

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