Mention the word `Aloha’ and a thousand dreamy vacation images of Hawaii spring to mind. It is also Hawaians’ traditional custom of welcoming visitors to its many islands of paradise. But you don’t have to go that far for a Hawaii-type of vacation.
Come to Johor’s Sibu Island Resort and you will get that Aloha welcome. Next, picture yourself on Fantasy Island. Yes, imagine Mr Roarke, the mysterious owner of the fantasy island, where for a price, people could come to realise their lifelong fantasies.
On this island, `Mr Roarke’ is without his able sidekick, Tattoo. Meet Encik Roslan Abdul Rahman, Sibu Island Resort General Manager, who together with his staff, greet all guests to his resort ala Hawaii and with a touch of Mr Roarke’s style.
Guests to the resort do not arrive by plane as on Fantasy Island. Only half-an-hour’s boat ride from Tanjung Leman jetty will take you to this `FantaSibu’, located in Pulau Sibu Tengah, off the east coast of Mersing, Johor. The jetty is a two-hour drive from Johor Bahru.
Roslan is not here to grant all sorts of wishes to people who want to see what their lives would have been as Roarke had done. Neither does the resort promise glamour and excitement for ordinary people whose lives normally had none. In other words, Roslan is not here to realise your fantasies.
But what the 20-acre island resort, owned by listed Johor Corporation Bhd, can offer is a retreat that’s exclusively private for both business and leisure. For those who want to take their mind off things, this idyllic resort is just perfect and a peaceful getaway.
“There are already many popular islands in Malaysia such as Penang, Langkawi and Tioman, all with their own attractions. But I believe Sibu Island itself has its own unique features … nature, crystal clear ocean, white sandy beaches and beautiful coral reefs,” says Roslan.
Neatly tucked among lush tropical vegetation of Pulau Sibu Tengah, the resort has a setting that is awesomely natural, tranquil and pleasantly invigorating amidst a world uniquely its own.
There are no villages on Pulau Sibu Tengah. Guests who have come for a `real’ retreat can expect some privacy at this four-star resort, which exudes its own brand of charm and comfort.
There are 121 units of chalets, air-conditioned and tastefully furnished – all majestically overlooking the vast emerald ocean and guests will get to enjoy the cool and rejuvenating breeze during their getaway holiday at the resort.
So, how do tourists come to know about the resort, or, Sibu Island?
“Initially we had difficulties in promoting our resort to the domestic market, but thanks to joint promotion by Johor Corp, the state government, Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines and our travel agents, we have been able to promote Sibu Island as a tourist destination in Johor,” he says.
Sibu Island itself has been commonly mistaken for Sibu in Sarawak and Cebu Islands in the Philippines. Even among Malaysians, says Roslan, many still do not know the existence of this island in Johor.
Besides Pulau Sibu Tengah, there are also other nearby islands which have their own unique features such as Pulau Sibu Besar, Pulau Sibu Kukus, Pulau Sibu Hujung and Pulau Lima.
This Pulau Sibu area, which has been gazetted as a marine park by the state government, is endowed with hard coral reefs, all known among snorkelling and scuba diving enthusiasts, mainly from neighbouring Singapore and Europe.
It is not surprising that Sibu Island has been the choice location for filming of the Robinson Survivor Series, which cater to the Scandinavian market such as Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Denmark.
“It is not just the island that has attracted the group to come here. They have surveyed several places, but this has been found to be the most suitable as they do not face any red tape,” says Roslan.
Although filming took place in Pulau Sibu Kukus and Pulau Sibu Besar, majority of the crew, participants, as well as the media covering the series, stayed at the Sibu Island Resort in Pulau Sibu Tengah. The fifth Survivor Series are expected to be filmed in Pulau Sibu Besar soon.
The popularity of the Survivor Series, has been a boon to the island resort, which has seen an encouraging number of tourists from Scandinavian countries, adds Roslan.
Aggressive overseas promotion by selling Sibu Island as a tourist destination has also worked to the resort’s advantage. Roslan has participated in the Internationale Tourismus Bourse in Berlin, Germany, World Travel Mart in London, ASEAN Tourism Forum in Indonesia and Natas Fair in Singapore.
Since its official opening in 2001, Sibu Island Resort has seen a steady rise in the number of guests. In 2001, it attracted 18,725 tourists from domestic and overseas markets, but the figure however declined to 15,109 last year, and dropped further to 3,910 up till April this year.
Singaporeans have so far formed the bulk of foreign tourists to the resort, accounting for about 40 percent of the total number of visitors. No thanks to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, economic downturn and rising unemployment, visitor arrivals from Singapore nose-dived 48 percent up till April this year.
One encouraging note is that the number of Malaysian visitors to the resort saw a dramatic rise of 61.5 percent up to the four months of this year, a 23 percent increase over last year. In 2002, Malaysians made up 51.3 percent of the visitors to the resort from 43.3 percent in 2001.
Within Asia, visitors to the resort rose to 7.4 percent as of April this year, as against 4.0 percent last year and 3.4 percent in 2001. Figures from Europe dropped to 6.3 percent up till April this year, from 8.9 percent last year and 6.8 percent in 2001.
Within Malaysia, promotions on the resort are also done through the MATTA Fair, Cuti-Cuti Malaysia and Visit Johor Year 2003 organised by Tourism Malaysia and Johor Tourism in Johor and Kuala Lumpur.
Developed as early as 1997, the resort which owns 65 acres of land in Pulau Sibu Tengah, has enjoyed a steady stream of visitors especially from Singapore since it was officially opened to the public in 2001.
“Since September 11 and more recently SARS, we have received travel cancellations and postponements from not only Singapore but also other tourists abroad. However, despite stiff competition from other resorts and hotels in Malaysia, we have seen a 15 percent improvement in our tourist arrivals,” says Roslan.
German tourists are also lured to the island resort. Based on a promotion conducted jointl
y with Tourism Malaysia, Roslan says, his yearly participation at the Berlin exhibition in March, now in its third year, has yielded results. This year, he has been able to bring 250 Germans to the resort.
One such case is a German couple, who stayed at the resort for 21 days.
Pohl Wolfgang, 63 and his 61-year-old wife, Pohl Hildegard, have just ended their 21-day stay at the resort on May 25.
What attracted them to Sibu Island Resort?
Wolfgang says: “We love the island, the resort, and friendly people. You have such beautiful nature, and this is our third time in Malaysia.” The couple, who enjoy snorkelling, have been to Sarawak and Terengganu. They have also visited Taman Negara twice.
At the resort, time was spent snorkelling, brisk walking, jungle trekking, and strangely, Wolfgang’s wife, Hildegard, loves to catch spiders.
Despite the SARS scare, the couple said they were unfazed. Although at the KLIA, airport staff were seen donned with face masks, the situation was normal upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur.
“As we can see, things are normal in Malaysia despite concerns over SARS.
“We have such fond memories of Malaysia during our stay here. People are friendly, you have such beautiful nature, and we enjoy your food, too. We will come again to Malaysia, probably in autumn, next year,” says Wolgang.
His wife, Hildegard nodded in agreement. Her parting words were: “Jumpa lagi.”