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Sun 1 Oct 2006 12:00 AM

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Truly Malaysia

Malaysia was a top-seller for the Middle East’s travel agents and tour operators this summer, but the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 campaign aims to encourage more inbound tourism from the region year-round

Malaysia is a one-stop-shop for white sandy beaches, tropical jungles, mountains enshrouded in mist, and a myriad of ancient temples.

Beach and rural locations, which boast these attractions, such as Penang, Langkawi and Kota Kinabalu are becoming increasingly popular with the Middle East market, however, Kuala Lumpur (KL) still tops the list, according to Mathew D’Costa, product manager, Asia and Australasia, Emirates Holidays.

“It is great value for money, good for shopping, caters to families (with the theme parks), has good entertainment, access to Genting Highlands (a major entertainment venue) and has plenty of dining options,” he says.

Rather than explore Malaysia in depth, many of Emirates Holidays’ Middle East customers opt for a twin-centre trip, combining KL with a visit to another Far Eastern destination, such as Singapore, or even Australia, D’Costa explains.

“Tourism Malaysia needs to promote events on a year-round basis, as well as increase awareness of other destinations in the country,” he says.

“[The] main drawback is lack of exposure and infrastructure to areas outside of Kuala Lumpur, [but] language is not much of a problem, because English is widely spoken.”

D’Costa says Emirates Holidays’ business to Malaysia increased 35% this summer, compared to last year’s figures.


Campaign preparations

Next year marks Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence from the UK, providing the perfect excuse for the Malaysian government to celebrate and promote what the destination has to offer, by way of an international campaign.

The Visit Malaysia Year 2007 (VMY) initiative, it claims, will spur a “paradigm shift in the way people approach tourism in Malaysia”, according to Syed Muhadzir Jamallulil, director UAE, Gulf & Iran, Tourism Malaysia.

“Malaysia offers a more or less similar culture to the Middle East.

It is a modern Islamic country, a value-for-money destination, family orientated and friendly, it is green, offers plenty of attractions, plus there are no visa requirements for Arabs,” he explains.

Factors such as the low cost of hotel rooms and the increasing number of flights serving the destination are additional selling points, he says.

“You can get a five-star hotel room for $100 to $150.

We position ourselves as a family destination, and the Arab market really goes for that,” he adds.

Jamallulil observes that Middle East travellers, particularly large groups and families, have started to book summer holidays to Malaysia as early as April.

The reason, he believes, is that summer demand is so high that customer choices become limited as some hotels that are popular with the Arab market become booked out far in advance.

Travel agents are therefore advised to warn clients that booking early makes sense, particularly next year when the country’s celebrations are destined to attract a larger international than ever before.

Some of the initiatives the Ministry of Tourism is hoping to get the go ahead for in time for 2007 include extending the opening hours of restaurants and bars until 5am and hiring a fleet of 300 VMY 2007-branded Mercedes-Benz mini-vans to act as tourist taxis, ensuring their journey is safe and reasonably priced.

In addition, a larger and more visible police force will patrol the streets of KL next year.

Three hundred CCTV cameras currently used to monitor traffic will also be used as security cameras for the police and security forces.

The Malaysian government also recently introduced a visa-on-arrival policy for visitors from 23 countries, including China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and former Soviet Union member states.

Arrivals from these countries can buy a visa at any of Malaysia’s international airports for RM 100 ($27), provided they have travelled directly from their home country.

Looking ahead, the government will invest RM10 billion (US $2.7 billion) to establish an efficient and cost-effective public transport system for the Malaysian capital, in a bid to persuade 50% of motorists to use public transport within five years.

Ambitious plans

Tourism Malaysia’s Dubai office is responsible for promoting Malaysia to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran. A second Middle Eastern office in Jeddah looks after Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and North Africa.

The Dubai office was established in 2002 in response to the increasing number of Middle East-based tourists flocking to Malaysia.

Around 50,000 Middle Eastern visitors arrived in Malaysia in 1999, which shot-up three-fold to 150,000 in 2005.

Total international arrivals for 2005 reached 15.4 million, but the target for 2007 is a staggering 20.1 million.

“It’s a tall order, but we’re going to do our best to achieve it,” says Jamallulil.

“In order to make this happen we need a strategic alliance with airlines, tour operators and travel agents, and we’re currently trying to see how we can come up with special packages.

“The challenge that we have in this part of the world is that we have a very seasonal travel market.

We want to achieve year-round travel.”

He says that in order to change people’s perception of Malaysia and to achieve the shift in established travel patterns, Tourism Malaysia has to convince people to do more than simply visit the big cities like Kuala Lumpur, and stay in five-star hotels.

“This country has more than that,” he says.

“We’re also looking for the business traveller and special niche markets, like tours for diving, golfing, mountain climbing, or medical tourism, for example.

“We want people to go to Malaysia and do more than just sit in a hotel. We want them to have an experience.”

Packages aimed at special interest groups can be sold year-round, he explains, whereas beach holidays tend to be seasonal.

Adventure sports such as mountain biking, white-water rafting, rock climbing, caving, or jungle trekking are widely available in Malaysia and provide visitors with the opportunity to see more of the country.

Sandy beaches, lush tropical highlands, national parks, and cultural monuments can be incorporated into a soft or hard adventure tour itinerary, and because everywhere in Malaysia is so accessible, travel agents should be creative and offer such packages, says Jamallulil.

“Visiting different places solves the problem of accommodation, as does year-round travel,” he adds.

Head for the high life

Although Malaysia’s MICE market is still in its teething stage, new projects like Genting International Convention Centre (GICC) could soon put Malaysia on the map as a meetings and conferences hub.

The centre is part of the phenomenal Genting Highlands Resort, situated in the tropical highlands overlooking Kuala Lumpur.

The resort has more than 10,000 rooms, 6200 of which are located in the vast and colourful First World Hotel, the visual centre point of the resort, which is a destination in its own right.

It is also home to Genting Theme Park, the first ISO-certified theme park in Malaysia, which welcomed a record 3.26 million guests in 2005, 11.3% more than the year before, as well as five hotels with accommodation to suit all budgets.

GICC covers around 14,000m², and has 18 meeting rooms, a business centre, and a convention hall that can be split up into three smaller halls.

The Grand Ballroom can seat 6000 guests in theatre plan, or 2000 in classroom format, and can be divided into two to four smaller halls, making it the largest column-free hall in the country.

“The MICE market is a very lucrative market, but in this part of the world it is very new.

The incentives market is already there, but the meetings and conventions business is not yet,” says Jamallulil.

But the leisure market certainly is, and according to Shehab Turk, manager for product & planning, Gulf Air Holidays, Malaysia is considered a family destination by GCC Arabs and ex-pats alike.

“The most popular areas are Kuala Lumpur, the Genting Highlands and Penang for Arabs, while ex-pats extend to Langkawi and Kota Kinabalu,” he explains.

“If they are away for more than three weeks, they usually add Thailand or Singapore to their itinerary.”

Leisure travellers usually hire cars or chauffeurs to take them around Malaysia, he adds.

Sharjah National Travel & Tourist Agency (SNTTA) says its overall leisure business has grown by 25% from summer 2005 to 2006, and that key destinations driving this growth have been Malaysia and Thailand.

“Leisure trips for the entire family to affordable exotic destinations are proving increasingly popular among the UAE residents,” says Zafar Imam, general manager of SNTTA, Sharjah.

Janet McNab, area director of sales & marketing, SE Asia, Starwood Asia Pacific Hotels & Resorts Pte Ltd, says the leisure travel market is breeding a greater volume of business travel and vice versa.

The Middle East accounts for 12% of business for Starwood’s Malaysian properties, of which there are eight across four brands; Luxury Collection, Sheraton, Le Meridien and Westin.

“The Middle East market has given Malaysia a great opportunity to enjoy volume travellers from leisure customers during the July/August periods, which were softer months prior to the market developing,” she adds.

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