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Hostage beheading casts pall on Sabah

Malaysian Bernard Then, a Sarawakian electrical consultant working in Cambodia.

Kuala Lumpur

THE beheading of a hostage by Abu Sayyaf militants in Sabah on Tuesday is set to yet again put the issue of security in the East Malaysian state under the spotlight amid what is already proving to be a poor year for Malaysian tourism.

The unexpected execution of 39-year-old engineer Bernard Then on Jolo island - the first Malaysian to be beheaded by the Southern Philippines-based terror group - was roundly condemned by Prime Minister Najib Razak as a "sickening act".

A key engine of growth for Malaysia, tourism arrivals have been hit this year by the global economic slowdown and aviation disasters last year and, in recent weeks, dense smog from Indonesia.

Arrivals in Malaysia have fallen significantly for the January-June period (Tourism Malaysia's latest statistics) to some 12.6 million - almost 10 per cent less than the same period last year.

Sabah Tourism Board's preliminary figures show a much smaller year-on-year drop of 2.2 per cent to some 2.11 million tourists up to end- August. Of the total, 1.44 million were domestic tourists, and 674,000 international. Singaporeans made up some 15,600.

It was a resilient performance in light of the June earthquake that hit Ranau and Mount Kinabalu, resulting in 19 dead including nine Singaporeans.

A month earlier, Mr Then (who was visiting the state) and Thien Nyuk Fun were kidnapped from the Ocean King Seafood restaurant in Sandakan. Fifty-year-old Ms Thien, who managed the restaurant, was released on Nov 8 after a ransom of RM3 million (S$971,000) was allegedly paid to the kidnappers.

As Mr Then was expected to be released soon, his brutal execution has come as a shock and is expected to cast a shadow over Sabah tourism.

The state's promoters insist Kota Kinabalu and the western side of the state are safe to visit and stress that ESSCOM or the Eastern Sabah Security Command continues to oversee security from Kudat in the north down to the entire east coast to Tawau.

Patrols have been particularly concentrated around Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau off the Celebes Sea, where previous kidnappings have taken place.

Many were shocked by the terror group's incursion further north to Sandakan - famous for the Sepilok orang utan rehabilitation centre, and Sukau-Kinabatangan wildlife area.

Already, the popular Mount Kinabalu International Climbathon had to be scrapped this year as the main trail up to the peak remains partially closed because of the earthquake.

But the incursions are the biggest blight on Sabah tourism as travel advisories by a few countries including the UK and Australia against going to the eastern coastal region remain in force.

One of the state's leading tour companies, Borneo Eco Tours, believes "most of Sabah with the exception of the Sipadan region, in our view, is very safe to travel to".

The company has quite comprehensively detailed Sabah's security risks on its website so that travellers have a better idea of the situation and can assess the risks for themselves. Still, it noted that - notwithstanding the risks of incursions in the Sipadan/Semporna area - "the resorts on these islands continue to enjoy healthy occupancies and are operating as usual".