‘Why not pay as if you’re traveling domestic--but you’re actually going overseas?’
LIKE MANY AN ANCIENT PLACE, the origins of Kota Kinabalu’s name are tucked away in legend. A Chinese woman, it is said, pined for her husband’s return for years and years after the man went back to, and eventually died in, mainland China. In her honor, the towering mountain that dominates the Sabah skies--and the rest of Southeast Asia--was named Kinabalu (“Chinese widow”). And the city that now serves as the capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah was christened Kota Kinabalu (“City of Chinese widows”).
Despite the sad tenor of that beloved myth, a pleasant reversal of sorts has happened to Kota Kinabalu. The city, according to two top hotels in the area, has increasingly become a preferred destination in Southeast Asia for weddings and honeymoons because of its scenic, unspoiled surroundings and first-rate amenities for travelers.
“Many visitors who come here to wed or to spend their honeymoon are from Japan, Korea, the UK, Australia and Europe,” says Jun Cordova, sales director of Tanjung Aru Resort & Spa (tel. 6088-327888, email@example.com, www.shangri-la.com/tanjungaru), one of two sprawling Shangri-La hotels in Kota Kinabalu.
Most of these weddings happen in the balmy month of January. The resort has a full-time wedding planner and an array of customizable wedding packages and venues (up to 1,000 guests in the largest ballroom) to cater to all manner of bridal events.
Unlike the rest of Malaysia, Sabah, a state of 3.3 million people, has a large Christian population--about 40 percent, mostly Catholic. Only 15-17 percent are Muslim. Christian wedding rites are thus easy to arrange in Kota Kinabalu, with a residency requirement of only seven working days for a couple to be wed. The Catholic parish covering the Tanjung Aru resort dispenses permission and services for weddings held in the hotel (in the case of foreigners, often outdoors—by the beach, in the gardens or even at the hotel rooftop).
Between Tanjung Aru (492 rooms), right smack in the city proper, and another Shangri-La hotel about 45 minutes from downtown, the Rasa Ria Resort (420 rooms), nearly 70 percent of the city’s wedding business is already covered, claims Cordova, a Cebuano who had worked at Shangri-La Mactan for six years and Traders Hotel Singapore for eight years before his Tanjung Aru posting.
“Kota Kinabalu is actually a hidden destination,” he says. “Oftentimes, it’s Bali and Phuket that first come to mind as romantic getaways, but they’re now so commercialized. KK offers value-for-money distinction because costs are lower here, since you spend in Malaysian ringgit. The UK pound, for instance, goes a long way here.”
“KK has also much more to offer compared to Penang, Kuala Lumpur or Genting in West Malaysia, which are beautiful but are now very tourist-y areas,” he adds. “What we have here are excellent dive spots like Sipadan, jungle adventures--more outdoorsy enjoyments.”
Tanjung Aru, located 10 minutes away from the airport, attracts highly mobile travelers for its easy combination of sea and city life. Rasa Ria (tel. 6088-792888, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.shangri-la.com/rasaria), meanwhile, tucked farther away in a cove with its own exclusive beachfront and lush forest as backyard, offers more laidback, self-sustaining features such as outdoor activities (orangutan-watching, four-wheel track, golf course, horseback riding) and a wider beach.
Cordova believes that, despite their high-end sheen, the Shangri-La resorts can be an attractive alternative destination for Filipino couples looking for a unique wedding or honeymoon setting.
“KK is so near--within two hours lang ‘andito ka na, and it’s so cheap!” he says. Cebu Pacific (tel. 632-7020888 [Manila], 6332-2308888 [Cebu], www.cebupacificair.com) has twice-a-week (Monday and Friday) budget flights to Kota Kinabalu, and is the only Filipino airline servicing this route.
“In terms of time and cost, parang Cebu and Davao lang when you come here. Going to Shangri-La Mactan costs almost the same. But with KK, why not pay as if you’re traveling domestic--but you’re actually going overseas?”
It’s an enticing proposition to practical-minded couples who are on the lookout for wedding or honeymoon venues that veer away from the tried, tested and photographed to death.
Perhaps the most prominent Filipino wedding Rasa Ria has hosted so far is that of Leo Po and Marielle Santos, scions of two of Manila’s wealthy families, who flew in 250 guests to the resort last year.
“Kota Kinabalu was our first option because we had visited the resort and really enjoyed our stay. Unlike Boracay, Palawan and Cebu, it’s a fairly unique and unused venue,” the couple was quoted as saying in social chronicler Maurice Arcache’s column for this paper.
It’s the kind of thumbs-up that makes Cordova and Cathy Nepomuceno, the Filipina director of sales and marketing of Rasa Ria, hopeful that more of their kababayan from across the sea would make the leap.
“For couples, iba talaga ang impact of having their wedding in a venue like ours kasi overseas, pero ang gastos parang domestic lang,” says Nepomuceno.
Not to mention the romance of saying their ‘I do’s’ in a city pledged to the legend of a woman who kept the torch for her beloved even beyond death.
[Last photo: Lito Sy]