Miri’s Path to Rediscovery: Overcoming Identity Crises through Inclusive Branding

By Prof. Andreas H. Zins

Miri City, located in the northern region of Sarawak, Malaysia, is currently facing challenges when it comes to defining its identity and establishing a strong brand for attracting tourists. Despite having natural beauty and vast potential as a tourist destination, Miri struggles to differentiate itself from other cities around the world that share similar aspirations of being resort or liveable cities.

This lack of distinctiveness makes it difficult for Miri to stand out among competitors in the global tourism market. However, there is hope on the horizon with the implementation of the Greater Miri Development Plan 2030 which aims to rejuvenate and rediscover Miri’s cultural, natural, and economic assets. Stakeholders within Miri need to understand that true identity can only be cultivated from within.

Miri, often referred to as the ‘Oil Town’ of Malaysia, is a vibrant small city located in the north-eastern part of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The city boasts a rich history, with its roots deeply embedded in the oil industry. It was here, in 1910, that the first oil well in Malaysia, known as the Grand Old Lady, was drilled, marking the birth of the country’s petroleum industry. This historic event has shaped the city’s identity, with the oil and gas industry playing a significant role in its development and growth for well over a hundred years.

Through the years, Miri has evolved from a small oil town into a bustling city, serving as a gateway to numerous surrounding national parks, including the world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, Gunung Mulu National Park. Miri’s strategic location has made it a hub for ecotourism, attracting nature lovers from around the world. Furthermore, the city’s diverse population, a mix of various ethnic groups including the Iban, Chinese, Malay, and others, has contributed to its rich cultural tapestry, reflected in its food, festivals, and traditions.

However, in recent times, Miri has been grappling with an identity crisis. As it strives to transition from its historic image as an ‘Oil Town’ to a modern, sustainable city, it faces challenges in defining its new identity. This has implications for its destination marketing and liveability, as a clear and compelling identity is crucial for attracting tourists and making the city a desirable place to live. The ongoing work on the Greater Miri Development Plan 2030 aims to address this issue, with a focus on involving stakeholders in the foundational work of a rebranding process.

The identity crisis of city destinations is evidenced by various trends observed across different cities. A notable example can be found in several European cities, such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Lisbon, and Venice. These cities have become immensely popular on a global scale, which has resulted in the fading of their traditional characteristics and strengths.

In the case of Amsterdam, the surge in visitors has put significant strain on its infrastructure with concerns arising about the erosion of its unique character. Similarly, Barcelona’s rapid growth has led to issues like overcrowding, noise pollution, and gentrification that threaten its original spirit. Lisbon also faces challenges stemming from an influx of tourists; problems include overcrowding rising prices and diminishing local businesses. Meanwhile, Venice confronts serious obstacles that jeopardise both its cultural essence and ability to support residents comfortably.

Several cities experience high demand from tourists, yet they seem to lack a distinct identity. Dubai is an example of such a city, built primarily on oil wealth and renowned for its opulent hotels, shopping centres, and man-made islands. However, criticism has been raised regarding the absence of cultural heritage in Dubai. Some argue that the city represents more of a manufactured ‘theme park’ rather than possessing genuine authenticity like other cities in the region. Miami is another city known for its stunning beaches, vibrant nightlife scene, and strong Cuban influence. Nevertheless, this city too encounters scrutiny as it grapples with issues surrounding its own sense of identity.

Las Vegas is famous worldwide for its lavish casinos, theatrical shows, and extravagant resorts. Some contend that Las Vegas can be seen as nothing more than an illusionary ‘fantasy land’ designed purely for entertainment purposes without much depth or true character. One can observe similar concerns about Orlando being chiefly associated with popular theme parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios but lacking unique characteristics commonly found elsewhere across various American cities. It is important to note that these cities can still be enjoyable destinations for tourists. However, some people may find them to be lacking in character or authenticity.

Where is Miri on the global landscape of competitive destinations? Two ambitions have been carried promulgated for more than two decades: being a resort and a most liveable city. And more recently, two more traits appear to be – rather timely and en vogue rather than unique: sustainable and smart.

A city can certainly position itself competitively by adopting attributes such as being sustainable, smart, and a resort city. Each of these attributes has unique advantages that can attract different demographics and meet various needs, contributing to the city’s overall appeal and competitiveness.

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a key factor in destination choice for many travellers. A city that positions itself as sustainable demonstrates a commitment to preserving its natural resources, reducing its carbon footprint, and promoting social equity. This can attract environmentally-conscious tourists who prefer destinations that align with their values. Moreover, sustainable practices can enhance the quality of life for residents by improving air and water quality, reducing waste, and creating green spaces.

A smart city uses technology and data to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, reduce costs and resource consumption, and improve interaction between citizens and government. Features of a smart city may include efficient public transportation, smart grids, digital services, and more. These features can make the city more liveable for residents and more convenient for tourists. For instance, efficient public transportation and digital services can make it easier for tourists to navigate the city and access information about attractions, enhancing their overall experience

A resort city, with its leisure and recreational facilities, can attract tourists looking for relaxation and entertainment. They can include families, couples, or individuals seeking a getaway from their daily routines. By offering high-quality resorts, beautiful beaches, recreational activities, and entertainment options, a resort city can position itself as a desirable vacation destination.

While it is challenging to provide an exact number of cities globally that aspire to be sustainable and smart, it is clear that this is a significant trend in urban development. Many cities around the world (for example, Dubai, Goyang-si) are recognising the importance of sustainability and smart technologies in improving the quality of life for their residents, enhancing the efficiency of urban services, and promoting environmental stewardship.

However, it is important to note that while these attributes can enhance a city’s competitiveness, they need to be authentically integrated into the city’s identity and branding strategy. The city’s branding should reflect its true character and values, rather than trying to fit into a certain mould. For instance, if a city wants to brand itself as sustainable, it should demonstrate this through tangible actions and policies, not just in its marketing materials.

According to a thought-provoking article by Destination Thinktank, involving stakeholders in the branding process is a major challenge for destinations like Miri. The author, David Archer, discusses the challenges faced by destination marketing organisations (DMOs) in involving stakeholders in their branding efforts. The article emphasises that a destination’s brand must come from within the place and its people, rather than being imposed externally. It also highlights the importance of understanding a destination’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities before making decisions.

Archer suggests that the identity of a destination is not a choice, but its brand is. The brand should be based on the core identity of the place, which evolves gradually with its people and culture. This process is a long-term endeavour and requires meaningful collaboration with stakeholders. The article also stresses the importance of including residents and businesses from various industries as stakeholders, as their buy-in and advocacy are crucial for the success of the brand.

The Greater Miri Development Plan 2030 is a crucial step towards addressing the identity crisis of Miri City and positioning it as a smart, sustainable destination. This plan focuses on leveraging Miri’s unique cultural identity and natural assets while integrating smart technologies and sustainable practices. The implementation of the Greater Miri Development Plan 2030 involves collaboration with various stakeholders, including local government agencies, community organisations, businesses, and residents, to ensure that the plan reflects the needs and aspirations of all those involved. By involving stakeholders in the rebranding and development process, Miri can create a strong sense of ownership and commitment among its residents and businesses.

According to Prof. Andreas H. Zins, who is part of the main consultants Konsortium Malaysia and Curtin University Malaysia involved in the Greater Miri Development Plan 2030, it is highly recommended to address these fundamental inquiries and follow certain steps before embarking on creating a new logo or campaign material:

  1. Are there specific challenges to involving stakeholders in the context of Miri City?
  2. What is the core identity of Miri, and how can it be leveraged in the branding strategy?
  3. What steps can be taken to ensure that the branding process is inclusive and takes into account the perspectives of various stakeholders, including residents and businesses from different industries?

In the case of Miri, the challenge lies in integrating the mentioned aspirational city attributes (sustainable, smart, liveable) into its existing identity, while also involving stakeholders in the process. This will require a deep understanding of the city’s strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities, as well as a commitment to meaningful collaboration and long-term planning.

Prof. Andreas H. Zins is the Professor of Tourism Management, the Director of the Regenerative Living Lab of Sustainable Tourism, and the previous Dean of the Faculty of Business at Curtin University Malaysia. Prior to this appointment, he was Program Director of a dual-degree Program and Full Professor of Tourism Management at MODUL School of Tourism and Hospitality Management Nanjing (affiliated to Nanjing Tech University Pujiang Institute), Adjunct Full Professor of Tourism Management at MODUL University Vienna and Adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Economics and Business, Vienna, Austria. He served as Program Director (Vice-Dean) for Business Administration study programs at WU Wien and as Academic Director for Certificate Programs for the Tourism Academy Austria and the WU Wien Executive Academy. He has published 5 books, edited 4 other books, contributed 32 book chapters, 30 scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals, 48 contributions in refereed conference proceedings, 71 peer-reviewed conference presentations, 24 invited conference presentations, and 68 research reports. From 2013 to 2016, he served as editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Culture, Tourism and Hospitality Research. He is now the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Business Events and Legacies.