City & Country: Cameron Highlands GROWING

Cameron Highlands remains a favourite holiday destination for many reasons. Some of us love the quick getaway from the city and the cool weather, while others go there for the fresh flowers and vegetables. Former pilot William and his wife Jessica chose to retire in Cameron Highlands for the “clean air and stress-free living”.

“My childhood memories of Camerons are that it was less developed with fewer cars on the road. The drive from Kuala Lumpur was through the old Templer’s Park, passing through Tanjung Malim and Slim River. Back in the 1960s, it took about six hours, compared to three hours today,” William tells City & Country.

Another frequent visitor to the highlands is Mary Quah. “I remember taking many family trips up to the highlands since I was a child. It was always an adventure travelling up the winding and narrow roads, knowing we were almost there once we felt the light, cool air,” she says.

The popularity of Cameron Highlands has not waned. And today, one can avoid the narrow, winding road and many blind spots by driving an extra 40km from Tapah, in addition to the four hours it takes from Kuala Lumpur via Simpang Pulai.

Vegetable, fruit and flower farms and tea plantations are part of the charm of the highlands. Tanah Rata is the main town, where a new bus station is being built. There is even a Starbucks here — a sure sign of the changing times.
City & Country took a short trip to the highlands recently to get updated on the development there.

The bustling town of Tanah Rata. Photo by Patrick GohOne of the oldest hotels, Cameron Highlands Resort. Photo by Patrick Goh










The allure of the highlands
In 2008, some 650,000 people visited Cameron Highlands, with an average room occupancy of 50,000 to 60,000 a month, Datuk Yee Shan Kon, a member of the local tourism board, tells City & Country. One of the latest hotels in Cameron Highlands catering for the high demand for accommodation is the Hotel De’La Ferns, located between Tanah Rata and Brinchang, just before The Smokehouse Hotel.

Owner S Bala Krisnen tells City & Country that the name is derived from the shape of the hotel building, modelled after a fern. Built on what was once farmland, the hotel was completed and received its certificate of fitness in the middle of last year. It has 75 rooms, including two suites. Published rates start from RM380, and RM1,800 for the suites.
The latest hotel Hotel De'La Ferns in Tanah Rata. Photo by Patrick Goh
Farmer turned property developer/hotelier Bala owns two hotels here — Hotel De’La Ferns and the 36-room Hotel Rainbow in Brinchang. He welcomed City & Country warmly into his office in his first hotel, Rosa Passadena, despite his busy schedule and our impromptu interview arrangement.

His business partner Yee and he  set up Sykt Pembinaan Cameron Highland Sdn Bhd, which has been developing various projects here since the late 1980s. They completed their first hotel, Rosa Passadena in Brinchang, in 1992. They also own Casa de la Rosa, situated close to Hotel De’La Ferns. The latter is owned by Bala but managed by Sykt Pembinaan Cameron Highland.

Another of their projects is the Bandar Baru Brinchang township. Bala says they developed the township in the early 1990s on a piece of vacant land. “[There was a] demand for housing then. Next year, we are looking to develop serviced apartments in Brinchang,” he says.

One of the oldest Cameron Highlands hotels, he says, is Hotel Cameron, a simple 2-storey wooden structure, which eventually became the Merlin Inn Resort. Now, YTL Corp Bhd owns it and it has been refurbished, upgraded and renamed the Cameron Highlands Resort.

The traditional Tudor-styled The Smokehouse Hotel is another of the original hotels in Cameron Highlands. It was originally opened as Ye Olde Smokehouse Inn at Christmas time in 1937, by Englishman Douglas Warin. In the beginning it had only six rooms, and its clientele was mainly homesick British expatriates, who could only visit home once in eight years, looking for some cool weather. Now it offers 13 suites. The hotel is rich in history, having survived the Japanese occupation and the Emergency.

Since 1977, “the Lee family” has owned it. Details of the family could not be established immediately. The family used to own The Smokehouse at Fraser’s Hill as well.

Cameron Highlands is extremely busy during the school and public holidays. “We always advise our customers to book months ahead, as all hotels and apartments are usually fully booked,” says Yee.

He says average occupancy for hotels here is about 50,000 to 60,000 per month, and last June it was as high as as 200,000. The number of tourists last year increased by 30% to 650,000.

Property values
Commenting on property values, Bala says in Bandar Baru Brinchang, 2-storey shophouses in 1991 were sold for RM250,000. “Today, those shophouses are valued at RM500,000. The same goes for 4-storey shophouses which were sold at RM400,000 in 1991. They have doubled in value.”

Yee adds that terraced houses in the area are around RM55 to RM65 psf. Demand is high in areas such as Tanah Rata and Brinchang, while purchasers tend to bypass Ringlet as “it has nothing much to offer”.

Retiree William and his wife Jessica moved to Cameron Highlands in 2005. They own a lovely five-room holiday bungalow called Valley View Holiday Bungalow, just past Ringlet on the way up to Tanah Rata. The 1,500 sq ft bungalow is rented out for RM800 a night during the low season, and up to RM1,200 during super peak periods such as the Chinese New Year holidays.

The bungalow, and a cosy home where the couple live with their six dogs, are built on a two-acre plot of hilltop land, which has been in William’s family since the 1960s. “Most of our customers, about 70%, are Malaysians. The rest are Singaporeans and other foreigners,” William says.

Other new developments
William and Jessica (above), owners of Valley View Holiday Bungalow (below)
City & Country understands there are no plans for new township developments in the highlands — only pockets of them within existing townships. The biggest landowners are said to be tea plantations, including Sungai Palas Tea Plantation, owned by Boh Plantations Sdn Bhd, and Cameron Bharat Tea Plantations, producers of the Cameron Valley Tea brand.

New housing developments, whether in Tanah Rata or Brinchang, are not obvious if one merely drives along the main roads. Most developments are away from the main roads. The current largest developer in Cameron Highlands, with a landbank of 75 acres, is LBS Bina Bhd, a KL-based developer more known for developing Sungai Way in Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Saujana Putra in Selangor (see sidebar).

Besides LBS Bina, City & Country also noticed several other developments in Cameron Highlands. Right next to The Smokehouse Hotel, 35 apartment units are being built, and according to the notice board erected at the site, the developer is Serba Utusan Sdn Bhd. The developer, who also owns Iris House Hotel in Brinchang, said the project has been completed and is awaiting the certificate of fitness.

The land just beside Cameron Highlands Resort is said to be poised for development as well. It is understood that freehold bungalows complete with individual lifts, with built-ups of close to 9,000 sq ft, and priced at RM3.2 million, and possibly a hotel as well as a shopping mall, might be built there. A local hotelier owns the land but details were not available at press time.

Meanwhile, Signature Landmark Property Sdn Bhd is set to develop Aranda Nova, located just beside Equatorial Hotel in Brinchang, on what is said to be the highest development point in Cameron Highlands. The mixed development consists of a hotel, serviced apartments and commercial units on a 5.54-acre leasehold tract. According to the company’s website, 148 units of apartments priced from RM218,000 and 78 commercial units are up for sale.

Signature Landmark sales and marketing executive Eddie Aw tells City & Country commercial units are going for RM340,000 to RM1.9 million. There will be three phases to the project. The first phase, consisting of 214 one-bedroom serviced apartments with built-ups from 509 sq ft, and priced from RM200,000 to RM350,000, and 78 commercial units on the ground floor, is expected to be  launched in 1Q2010. The GDV of this phase is about RM94 million.

The second phase, expected to be launched three years later, comprises two blocks of 229 three-bedroom apartments tagged from RM208,000 to RM320,000, and 78 commercial units on the ground floor. Aw says no details are available for the final phase, which will feature a hotel. The developer mainly has completed projects in Ipoh, including commercial development Greentown Nova and residential Bercham Nova.

A vibrant development scene in Cameron Highlands, however, could possibly impact the environment. Several residents of Cameron Highlands, concerned about the quality and rate of development here, formed Regional Environmental Awareness Cameron Highlands (REACH) in 2001. REACH president Ramakrishnan Ramasamy tells City & Country that he hopes future projects will only be undertaken after detailed environmental impact assessment (EIA).

“We further hope that abandoned projects will be revived before new ones are started. More efforts should be made to sell off unsold units rather than rushing to clear yet another pristine part of the forest for more housing, when in reality, there is no housing shortage up here,” he says.

There were 7,158 housing units in the highlands as of 2003, he says, out of which 66.2% were owner-occupied, while the rest were rented out to holidaymakers. “Referring to the local plan, projects already approved will add another 4,859 units, and some of these projects have since been completed. It was estimated that by 2015, we will only need 9,306 residential units based on the projected population of 38,000. But based on the projects approved, there will be an excess of 2,711 units,” says Rama.

From an environmental perspective, he adds, the property market in Cameron Highlands has reached saturation point, putting tremendous strain on the existing infrastructure, especially on the water resources.

In response, an LBS Bina spokesman says they had engaged consultants to carry out EIA and the report was issued in 2007. Relevant approvals have been obtained in accordance with the local ruling set for developing Class III slopes on Cameron Highlands.

“As an experienced and the largest developer in Cameron Highlands, LBS has been and would certainly continue to carefully observe its responsibilities in fulfilling its care of the environment while carrying out its business activities,” he says.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 793, Feb 15-21, 2010.

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