City&Country: Cover Story-- Langkawi goes boutique

Langkawi has always been one of Malaysia’s leading tourist destinations. With a government initiative to roll out a five-year tourism development master plan (2011 to 2015) for the island, tourist arrivals are expected to rise. In tandem with this, the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) expects the number of hotels on the island to increase, especially over the next two years.

Tom Blachere, chairman of the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), Kedah/Perlis chapter, and general manager of Casa Del Mar, a boutique resort in Langkawi, concurs with LADA.

Known as the jewel of Kedah, Langkawi is 478.6 sq km in size and lies in the Andaman Sea, some 30km off the coast of northwest Peninsular Malaysia. According to MAH’s database, there are some 96 resorts and hotels on the island. In 2010, room revenue was RM126.9 million from 341,306 nights while last year, it was RM114.6 million from 252,842 nights. As at April this year, room revenue had reached RM35.6 million from 67,074 nights.

Overall, some 8,825 hotel rooms were available in Langkawi as at March this year while the average occupancy rate stood at 57.1% compared with 51.8% previously, according to LADA.

Tourism arrivals have been encouraging. LADA’s records put total tourist arrivals at 2.45 million in 2010 and at 2.82 million last year. Some 388,496 foreigners and locals visited the island in December last year compared with 332,028 in the previous December.

Without divulging details, LADA says more three to five-star hotels will be developed within the next two years in areas such as Teluk Burau and Teluk Datai.

Trend towards boutique hotels
Langkawi’s thriving hospitality market has seen a large number of boutique hotels being set up by individuals and small private companies. Indeed, several new ones have opened or are ready to open for business, for example Ambong Ambong Langkawi Rainforest Retreat, which opened a few months ago, and the luxurious Seri Chenang Resort & Spa, which is set to open for business in September 2012.

Consisting of six villas of varying sizes and called Rumah Terengganu, Rumah Pahang, Rumah Negeri Sembilan, Rumah Melaka, Rumah Selangor and Rumah Kedah, Seri Chenang Resort & Spa has replicated the traditional Malay houses of the various states. It is located on the banks of Cenang River, which is close to the popular Pantai Cenang, and its facilities include an infinity pool, a gymnasium, an art gallery, a boutique, a spa and butler service.

“The trend on the island now is no longer 200 to 300-room hotels or resorts but boutique hotels offering personalised services. Intangible services with value-added benefits are now deemed important for the success of a resort. With Langkawi being an exotic, duty-free vacation island, boutique resorts are now considered big business,” observes its manager Warren Fernandez.

He says Seri Chenang is taking advantage of the potential increase in tourists to the island with bigger promotions under the five-year development plan, adding that the resort aims to attract the Europeans.

“One can experience true Malay culture in the midst of traditional Malay architecture that reflects designs from certain states of Malaysia. We expect tourists from Europe and the UK to appreciate a culture that is different from theirs. There has also been an increase in demand for boutique hotel accommodation from Hong Kong, China and Japan with India not far behind. At the same time, we have Malaysians who want to experience a boutique environment that features the true essence of Malay culture,” he remarks.

Besides the basic amenities, the resort offers butler service, personalised attention to detail service, marketing tie-ups with tourist establishments and food and beverage outlets in Langkawi as well as outdoor activities.

“Guests are allowed to bring in alcohol without any corkage and enjoy it at tax-free rates. The Malay culture is introduced through our food, mannerisms, designs, games and spa treatments with traditional herbs. In fact, guests are greeted with surprises throughout their stay at the resort,” says Fernandez.

With more boutique resorts coming up on the island, the plan is to complement each other, he adds.

Ambong Ambong, meanwhile, comprises a group of cottages perched on a hill in a tropical forest. Each cottage offers views of the Andaman Sea and the peaks of the Machincang range. The resort is located within walking distance of Pantai Tengah while convenience stores, restaurants and cafés are just minutes away.

According to its general manager Anna Hue, more travellers are looking for boutique-style resorts. “There are several kinds of accommodation in Langkawi — guest houses, motels, resorts with over 200 rooms and five-star resorts like the Four Seasons Resort as well as a lot of boutique hotels. Travellers these days seek the latter as they want unique experiences than just a bed by the beach.”

She says the resort caters for nature lovers and people seeking peace and quiet, adding that it also appeals to young expatriates from Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

“It seems that the future of Langkawi rests on boutique hotels and five-star resorts. This trend improves the selection of accommodation and makes Langkawi a unique destination in Malaysia.”

Over the past four years, remarks Hue, Langkawi has seen the emergence of boutique hotels that suit all types of budgets, which makes the product even more attractive.

Since it opened for business last December 2011, she adds, Ambong Ambong’s occupancy rate has risen 20% every month. “We are doing great, considering that we opened only eight months ago. Our review and feedback have been amazing, touching and personal. Being a small retreat allows us to really take care of every guest and help them have a memorable time in Langkawi. We are also building a strong network through the Internet.”

Alex Mark, managing director of Betelnut Mobile Sdn Bhd and general manager of Tubotel — a boutique hotel in Langkawi — shares Hue’s views. “Being a hotel manager, you always hear of new projects in Langkawi, especially in Pantai Kok and Pantai Cenang. This has something to do with more tourist arrivals spurred by the government’s plan to allow more flights from major Asian cities to the island.”

Tubotel was inspired by Austria’s Dasparkhotel that was designed by Andy Strauss. It features barrel-like rooms made from giant drainage pipes in various pastel colours. According to Mark, the hotel targets flashpackers and backpackers who can afford to stay in slightly nicer accommodation. He says the hotel, which opened its doors in July this year, had an average occupancy rate of 50% in its first month of operations. “We get a lot of visitors from China and Australia,” he adds.

Boutique hotels, sometimes described as “lifestyle hotels” or “design hotels”, offer full-service accommodation in a unique or more intimate setting, according to an online information source. MAH’s Blachere says this is because the hotels have fewer than 200 rooms. “The service is personalised. Luxury may come into the picture, but it may not be the first criterion for clients.”

Nevertheless, he remarks, boutique hotels cater for a specific type of clientele — those who prefer three to five-star service in an intimate environment.

“Boutique hotels add to the current choice of holiday accommodation available on the island. Smaller hotels suit the environment better but the island needs a mix of both large and small.”

Like other hotels, Blachere observes, boutique hotels are given a typical hotel star rating, depending on their facilities and services.

When contacted, the Langkawi City of Tourism Municipal Council (MPLBP) reveals that it is coming up with its own definition of “boutique hotels”. “We will review all the self-proclaimed boutique hotels on the island. Should we find any that does not fit our criteria, we will have to ask the hotel to change its definition or rating.”

When asked, Blachere says he is not aware of this. “Authorities will have to define the criteria first and this may be subjective. I am not against any new regulation as long as it is enforced fairly.” The review and revoking of ratings should be applied to all hotels, not just the so-called boutique hotels, he adds.

According to MPLBP, a total of 28 hotels have been approved for development since 2010.

The plan
The five-year tourism development master plan aims to turn Langkawi into an international standard eco-tourism destination and help increase foreign tourist arrivals. At the tabling of Budget 2012, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced an allocation of RM420 million to implement the master plan based on the Langkawi Tourism blueprint prepared by the Economic Planning Unit that would act as the foundation to attract more investors to the island.

The blueprint envisages RM6 billion worth of investments in tourism projects while tourist arrivals are expected to increase from the current 2.4 million to three million by 2015. LADA is involved in a number of the initiatives under the plan, which will be executed through a delivery management office.

There are 14 initiatives across three sections: product, infrastructure and enablers. Under product, plans include an iconic geopark, a revitalised Cenang beach area, living museums, a more vibrant northwest part of the island and promoting itself as a MICE destination while endorsement programmes will be created via a new rating guideline for all tourism products. Infrastructure focuses on connectivity, ground mobility, health and sanitation and targeted touch points while enablers covers branding and marketing, a tourism academy as well as farming and fisheries programmes to enhance the income potential of the residents of Langkawi involved in these activities.

Langkawi was declared the 32nd Unesco World Geo­park in 2007 and the plan is to make it an iconic one by creating more eco-tourism geosites like Kilim, Dayang Bunting and Machinchang with world-class interpretive centres and exemplary conservation practices.

Two historical sites — Laman Padi and Makam Mahsuri — will be transformed into “living museums” to promote Langkawi as an island of tradition and lore. Meanwhile, Pantai Cenang will morph into a premier public beach on which the government plans to create an 84-acre new waterfront and commercial area.

To attract luxury travellers, exclusive boutique resorts and rental holiday villas as well as high-end retail, dining and entertainment zones will be created.

Infrastructure will focus on initiatives to improve connectivity from international destinations, ease mobility around the island and ensure high standards of cleanliness and sanitation.

Blachere calls the master plan a “very daring venture”, but one that is necessary for the development of the island. “It will benefit the local community, but a target of five years looks a bit unrealistic. There are some challenges, such as the lack of healthcare facilities, which may take more time to overcome.

“There is a lack of healthcare infrastructure and personnel on the island. This is a challenge today that will become bigger with the construction or opening of additional hotels. There is no medical evacuation possible by air to a better-equipped hospital. This is a real problem when someone has suffered serious injuries and needs urgent surgery in a life or death situation.”

Another huge problem every hotelier on the island faces is flight connectivity. Says Blachere, “Langkawi has an international airport but the only international flights coming in are from Singapore. There were a few attempts to welcome chartered flights but hoteliers have not received any response from the charter operators despite their offers and the efforts of LADA.

“We need direct flights, not necessarily charters but regular flights. There are challenges in attracting the high-end market to Langkawi for different reasons, but one is the number of stops it takes to reach the island.”

Blachere adds that clientele travelling in business or first class are less willing to spend 15 to 24 hours of travelling time to reach their holiday destinations.

The government is aware that Langkawi has only one non-stop international route from Singapore and the charter flight programmes from Finland and Hong Kong operate only during their respective peak seasons. In line with the tourism development plan, connectivity will be improved under, among others, a proposal to pursue a charter flight strategy for mid to long-haul services that provides foreign tour operators with a per-head incentive and fixed marketing cost subsidy.

However, eligibility for these incentives is subject to terms and conditions. For instance, tourists brought in under these charter programmes must be from the affluent and luxury group and spend at least seven days in Langkawi. For cities such as Bangkok and Jakarta, incentives such as waived landing and parking fees per head will be introduced to encourage the respective national airlines to muster passenger loads.

While ambitious plans have been drawn up for Langkawi’s development, the island’s charm and beauty must be retained. Blachere says: “The island’s relaxing atmosphere and friendly locals play a big role in attracting visitors. It has its own charm and is not over-developed. About 65% of the island is still covered in jungle.

“Langkawi also offers fantastic experiences at sea where you can discover amazing islands surrounding it. It has a lot to offer in terms of eco-tourism and authorities should definitely not forget these aspects of the island’s identity in its branding.”

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 922, Aug 6-12, 2012

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