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Monday, February 2, 2009

Mount of Kinabalu, highly unreachable

Since 2008, the cost of climbing Mt Kinabalu has skyrocketed, and if you’re lucky, you may get a confirmed booking . . . five months down the line. What’s the deal with Malaysia’s iconic mountain? Here’s the irony — climbing Sabah’s Mount of Kinabalu, whose majestic peak tops out at 4,085m, is relatively easy; trying to wrangle a spot to climb, however, requires a fair bit of doggedness, an open schedule and, yes, money.

In the past year, regular climbers and tourists, both foreign and local, have been flooding the blogosphere, travel forums and media with complaints. Their main gripes are that the climbing cost is astronomical, the waiting list long and the service and infrastructure, substandard.

To climb Mount of Kinabalu, the average person takes about four to six hours to reach about three-quarters of the way to Panar Laban (3,270m), stays overnight at Laban Rata, and then completes the summit push before dawn the next day. Unless you’re super-fit and can dart up the peak like the local porters, you’ll need to book a dormitory bed or a room at the Laban Rata guesthouse, since camping isn’t allowed.

All the lodges on the mountain — the Laban Rata Resthouse, Gunting Lagadan and Sayat-Sayat huts — are owned by the Sabah government under Sabah Parks. In 1998, Sabah privatised the management of the properties, and in 2002, private company Sutera Harbour Resort was appointed to co-manage under the name Sutera Sanctuary Lodges (SSL), with Sabah Parks handling the park administration and collection of fees for conservation, guide, porter and climbing.

To prevent the mountain from being overrun, Sabah Parks limits the number of climbers to 192 people a day. Plus, park rangers enforce the rules on the mountain.

Drastic increase - The problem is the cost of climbing has now increased dramatically. In 2007, a dorm bed in Laban Rata cost only RM30, but in January 2008, the cost with meals included (a packed box, buffet lunch, dinner and breakfast) jumped to RM188, an increase of some 500%.

“Most return climbers to Kinabalu don’t think the price increase is justifiable,” says Ruhaizad Daud of Johor, an avid climber.

“Prior to this, we had the option of booking only the beds without meals. Also, the packed lunch using polystyrene boxes and plastic bags are producing more rubbish on the mountain.”

Apparently, the price increase hasn’t translated into better maintenance, either.

“Interrupted hot water, electricity and plumbing leaks are common. Leaks from the bathrooms trickle down to the restaurant below the sleeping quarters,” adds Ruhaizad, 32, a Kota Kinabalu-based doctor.

This year, the cost of the package (dorm and meals) has escalated to RM330 per person.
One of a Malaysian traveller from Puchong, Selangor, used to pay about RM250 for a three-day/two-night trip to Kinabalu, covering return air ticket, transportation to Kinabalu Park, climbing fees, guide, certificate and insurance.

“AirAsia has made it so affordable for us to fly to KK. But now the cost of climbing the mountain has risen so much that it makes better sense to travel to other countries for a holiday,” writes Tan, who has climbed Kinabalu four times.

Malaysian Budget climbers, had to book his climb at least six months in advance. “Even then, bookings are snapped up quickly as only a few seats are allocated for non-hotel climbers. Preference is given to guests who can afford the pricey packages, which include an additional one-night stay at the foot of the mountain in Kinabalu Park or Mesilau Resort (Mesilau has an alternative route to the peak)”.

“If Sabah Parks is aiming for conservation by limiting the number of people, then they should do it, but not by allowing a monopoly to increase the lodging rates in the name of conservation. Kinabalu is for all, not just the paying few”.

Some bloggers have set up a Facebook petition called “Mount of Kinabalu — Belongs to No-one Else” to boycott SSL accommodation. So far 1,223 people have signed the petition.

On the first week of January, I called SSL to reserve a spot on the mountain for a group of two climbers. After throwing out a few optional dates, the earliest booking I could get was for May 14. The total cost for this two-day climb and an AirAsia promotional return flight ticket for KL-KK is about RM800 per person. Trouble is, not everybody has a flexible schedule and it’s not every day you get to buy cheap AirAsia flights with the dates of your choice.

And for the average Sabahan, paying RM500 (dorm, meals, climbing fee, guide and porter) to climb a mountain in their own backyard seems quite exorbitant.

What the operators say - The Kinabalu issues are also drawing a lot of flak from Sabahan and foreign tour operators. TYK Adventures, one of the pioneer adventure tour operators in Sabah, recently lost about 300 Singapore student clients due to the cost. The group headed to a neighbouring country instead.

“The increase is unbelievable, and surely locals will think it’s cheaper to climb Fansifan in Vietnam,” says Tham Yau Kong, the director of TYK Adventures. Tham himself has climbed Kinabalu about 500 times since the 80s.

“Privatisation is OK if it provides better service but the increase is too much in light of this recession worldwide.”

Some high-end guests don’t mind the price hike if the standard of service and infrastructure has improved, Borneo Eco Tours’ (BET) assistant general manager Susan Soong adds. BET caters to mostly high-end clients from Europe.

“But this year, with the financial downturn, the demand from international tourists are starting to drop. And if domestic tourists can’t afford to climb, it’s just unfortunate,” says Soong.

Foreign operators like UK-based Robert Jones, who specialises in selling Borneo holiday packages, agrees that the Kinabalu pricing is getting out of control.

“We have clients from Europe and the US who want to climb the mountain as a highlight to their trip to Sabah but are put off by the cost and are travelling to Java and Vietnam instead,” says Jones whose company, The Travel Trading Company, has been around for 20 years.

The current reservation system for booking a climb on the mountain also irks some foreign operators.

“On a few occasions, we were told that the mountain and accommodation have been fully booked, only to find out later that it was, in fact, not fully booked at all, and that there was plenty of space for more clients,” adds Will Bolsover, managing director of UK-based World Primate Safaris, who caters mostly for mid- to high-end clients in the 30-70 age group.

“In order to book Mount of Kinabalu for set group departures, they require us to pay the full amount six months in advance!”

However, some operators agree that since the privatisation of the lodgings on the mountain, the service and standard of food and lodging have improved tremendously.

“Also, in the past, travel agents were able to block out the rooms with a small fee and deprive other climbers of a space even when their clients don’t show up. Now there’s a new ruling whereby you have to pay in full one week after reservation, and there’s no refund for cancellation,” says David De La Harpe, the Sabah chapter chairman for Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta).

“Maybe Mount of Kinabalu has been oversold and the carrying capacity is limited, hence the long waiting list. Maybe there’s a need to look at other attractions,” De La Harpe sums up.

However, the Sabahan agrees that it has become expensive to climb the mountain.

Kinabalu is a Unesco World Heritage site and a one of a kind attraction, so every Malaysian should be able, if they so choose, to climb the mountain at least once in their lifetime.

Though the climbing cost may be pittance for some and abominable for others, the key issue here is perhaps that we need to hear the rationale for what’s happening from Sabah Parks and the private company in question.


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