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AirAsia eyes Sabah for route expansion

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KOTA KINABALU, 11 July 2022: Philippines AirAsia will introduce more direct flights to Sabah and is considering establishing a hub in Sandakan as part of its expansion ambitions.

The airline is currently studying the potential for direct routes to Kota Kinabalu from Puerto Princesa and Davao in the Philippines. A possible connection between Zamboanga and Sandakan is also on the list of possible direct routes, according to an assessment in a media statement released by the Sabah Tourism Board.

Datuk Jafry Ariffin receiveS a souvenir from Philippines AirAsia chief executive officer Ricky Isla.

State Tourism, Culture, and Environment Minister Datuk Jafry Ariffin said Sabah welcomed the plan, which would help both countries in terms of economic spillover.

“One of the Sabah Maju Jaya plans is to ensure Sandakan Airport is upgraded to the international airport. We should explore additional direct routes into the state.

“Tawau, being a gateway to Semporna, might potentially serve as an operational hub too. So, whether it’s Sandakan or Tawau, we’ll let them study the viability,” he said.

Jafry was speaking at a recent press conference on the joint collaboration between the Philippines AirAsia and Sabah Tourism Board (STB)

Also present were Assistant Tourism, Culture, and Environment Minister cum STB chairman Datuk Joniston Bangkuai; Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of State Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Sr Yusrie Abdullah; STB deputy chairman Datuk Dr Jelani Hamdan; STB chief executive officer Noredah Othman; Philippines AirAsia chief executive officer Ricky Isla; and Philippines AirAsia SuperApp managing director Ray Berja.

The press conference was in conjunction with the familiarisation trip to Sabah for the Philippines media.

Speaking on the strategic partnership between STB and Air Asia, Jafry said the board is now finalising a collaborative technical campaign to encourage Filipinos to visit Kota Kinabalu.

Ricky stated that Philippines Air Asia now flies twice weekly from Manila to Sabah, with plans to expand frequency.

“We want to sustain the travel momentum, and for Sabah, we are not just looking at beaches but eco-tourism and agro-tourism, which are educational.

“We are looking into the prospect of opening a new destination in Sandakan, which has one of the highest Filipino populations in Sabah, as part of our expansion plan,” he said

Meanwhile, STB chief executive officer Noredah Othman said Manila has the potential to serve as another hub to attract international visitors and also to attract expatriates living in the Philippines.

Although having certain similarities, she said Sabah and the Philippines each have unique contrasts that both sides should explore.

Pre-pandemic, Noredah said the state of Sabah received 4.2 million visitors in 2019, with a promising rise in arrivals since the reopening of borders after two-year hiatus. Chinese visitors contributed the most arrivals in 2019, followed by South Koreans and Europeans.

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