KOTA KINABALU: Sabah and AirAsia have inked a strategic partnership that is aimed at connecting the state with most countries in Asia as well as Oceania in the next five years.

Under the partnership with the Sabah Tourism Board (STB), the AirAsia Group aims to potentially launch 14 new domestic and international routes including Kota Kinabalu-Bandar Sri Begawan, Kota Kinabalu-Perth, Tawau-Guangzhou and Sandakan-Hong Kong, among others.

Officials from the state tourism authorities as well as the low cost carrier envision that Sabah’s status as a top-tier tourist hotspot will be elevated to the next level if the plan is successfully implemented between 2024 and 2028.

As it is, both sides were eager to enhance air connectivity between Sabah and the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), as well as the larger Asean region, North Asia, and Oceania, under the agreement.

The partnership also includes greater collaboration between the airline and the STB to potentially develop the Kota Kinabalu International Airport as a regional aviation hub in the future.

AirAsia Aviation Group deputy group CEO (Airline Operations) Datuk Captain Chester Voo told reporters that the airline was focused on delivering the best end-to-end service as well as offering the most competitive airfares.

Asked if AirAsia would feel pressured to deliver cheaper flights as a consequence of the partnership, he said: “Of course, in everything that we do there’s always pressure.

“But pressure makes you better, competition makes you stronger but in AirAsia, it’s not about pressure, we are not afraid of it (but) we want to add more and we want to be more present in Sabah

“So, I want you to be assured that we are the people’s airline, and we are doing our best to keep fares at the most affordable.

“Our tagline is that everyone can fly and we believe in that,” he said.

Voo earlier exchanged MOU with STB represented by CEO Julinus Jimit in a ceremony witnessed by Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Christina Liew and her assistant and STB chairman Datuk Joniston Bangkuai at a hotel here on Thursday (July 4).

In her speech, Liew said the state government through her ministry will support in bridging the conversation between the airline and relevant stakeholders.

Over the past few months, she said, Sabah has become one of the top affordable travel destinations, adding that AirAsia played a crucial role in facilitating this milestone.

“In the first half of the year, we successfully welcomed 1.24 million tourists to Sabah to date, and with AirAsia’s vast reach, we are confident that we can attract more visitors and showcase the unique experiences Sabah has to offer to travellers beyond this region,” she said.

She said tourism directly creates jobs in various sectors such as hospitality, transportation, and retail, adding, as of 2022, tourism alone has contributed 22.8% of employment in the state, including positions in hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, and local attractions.

Voo said the partnership with STB marked a significant step for AirAsia to expand connectivity from its second biggest hub in Malaysia.

“Since 2002, we have flown close to almost 80 million guests to and from Sabah, both domestically and internationally.

“We look forward to seeing these numbers grow exponentially in the next five years with this partnership.

“In 2023 alone, AirAsia flights contributed to a 60% market share for tourism in Sabah, highlighting the immense potential of this region as a major travel destination,” he said.

The AirAsia Group flies to 23 destinations to and from Sabah with a total of 294 flights weekly.