Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Sarawak river taxis sinking under loss of tourists

Can Sarawak’s traditional wooden ferries transform into a Grab-style service to safeguard their future?

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The conditional movement control order in Sarawak has been extended for a further two weeks from March 16 to 29, Deputy Chief Minister Amar Douglas Uggah Embas has announced.

He said at the state disaster management committee briefing in Kuching last Friday that the decision was made because the number of positive cases in the state was still high.

Traditional Sarawak river taxi operators are expressing their frustration with the decision.

In the absence of bridges spanning the north and south banks of the river, the small, covered wooden boats were long the only way for locals to reach the other side or travel further along the river.

But in recent years the boatmen had come to depend on tourists going to Fort Margherita and other attractions rather than locals to make a living. And now there are no tourists.

Pak Loden, from central Kuching river jetty Kampung Sungai Bedil, said many operators like him have been struggling since Covid-19 hit the country.

“Since the pandemic, I can only earn RM20 per day.”

The 63-year-old river veteran told MalaysiaNow, “My income usually increases during school holidays because tourists hire me to take them across the river to Kampung Boyan to visit Fort Margherita and then bring them back to the waterfront again.

“If there are five people in a group, I charge RM50 for a one-hour boat ride. If there are plenty of tourists, I can earn up to RM100 per day. Since the pandemic, I can only earn RM20 per day,” he said at the Kampung Sungai Bedil jetty on Saturday.

Another ferryman, Pak Openg, who operates from Pangkalan Jalan Gambir to Kampung Sungai Bedil jetty, said river taxi revenue had been dropping for a long time before the pandemic came along.

“Our boats were used for advertising. Celcom and DiGi paid us quite a lot, around RM3,000 per year. Even Sunsilk shampoo put ads on our boats,” the 58-year-old said, smiling at the memory. “But that was 10 years ago.”

Having been a river boatman since he was 17, he said the traditional “perahu tambang” ferry is a true symbol of Sungai Sarawak.

Operating to and from the kampungs opposite Kuching Waterfront, he said the city’s traditional boats have faithfully served Kuching folks for over 50 years.

“In the 1970s, the villagers would use the river taxi service to go to work, school or the city centre with fares of five sen for children and 10 sen for adults.

“The high cost of living and rising oil prices makes it difficult for us to keep a family.”

“At that time, ‘pak tambang’ (river taxi operators) used oars and paddles so it took about five minutes to cross the river. Today, the boats have engines so it’s much quicker but of course the fares have gone up as well.”

However, despite the fare increases, Pak Openg said his life and income have not changed much.

“The high cost of living and rising oil prices makes it difficult for us to keep a family. In the past, the fare was low, but we actually earned more because we ferried more passengers.”

Most people along the river still prefer the water taxi service as fares are cheaper and it’s faster than going by road, he said.

Basri Saidi (left) and Pak Loden at the Kampung Sungai Bedil along Sungai Sarawak. They and many other boatmen have been experiencing a drop in income made worse by the lack of tourists due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Another pak tambang, Basri Saidi, 45, said that with the opening of the s-shaped pedestrian Darul Hana Bridge across the river in 2017, the often battered but picturesque ferries enhance the view of the city during sunset and evening.

“Walking over the bridge takes about 20 minutes so many people in a hurry prefer to use my boat service across the river because it’s quicker,” he said.

Basri is optimistic that his business will recover once the vaccination programme achieves herd immunity and the tourists return.

“We must preserve our boats and keep our taxi services as they are part of our Kuching culture.”

Although these boatmen operate a traditional form of river transport, they are certainly not stuck in the past. In fact, they are eager to use modern technology to generate more business.

Basri said the “perahu tambang” should be recognised as a heritage asset but operating them profitably will require digital technology to revive and transform the ferry business so it and the pak tambang survive.

“We must preserve our boats and keep our taxi services as they are part of our Kuching culture which tourists love,” he said.

“I hope we can soon use a digital service like Grab to operate our boats.”

But some, like Ahmad Junaidi, know that adopting modern technology will be difficult.

Junaidi, 57, is more than willing to upskill himself and to do what it takes to keep his boat going.

The hurdle for him is that he does not even have a mobile phone number, much less a smartphone. All he has is a small notebook in which he jots down the phone numbers of others.

The current penambang fee of RM1 per head will not go far in helping him upgrade, either. This is a step up from the original charge of 30 sen, but Junaidi still knows that more must be done to promote tourism to domestic travellers.

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