Thursday August 22, 2002

Malaysia's tourism industry booms as Arabs pour in

Arab tourists are pouring into Malaysia in increasing numbers, many choosing to holiday in an exotic Muslim state rather than face suspicion in Western countries gripped by fears of terrorism.
The number of visitors from Arab countries rose 115 percent last year to some 115,000, and is expected to soar to more than 200,000 this year, according to government statistics.
In the bustling streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur the sudden surge is evident from the number of women wearing full black robes with only their eyes showing, amidst the mini-skirted Chinese and local Muslim women in colourful headscarves.
Major hotels have begun employing Arab-speaking staff and promoting Middle Eastern cuisine to accommodate their cash-rich patrons.
"Middle East customers make up more than 35 percent of total guests, and they generally spend about 5,000 ringgit (1,316 dollars) for a 10-day stay," said Carol Chin, a spokeswoman for a leading hotel.
Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir told AFP that Malaysia had made a major promotional push in the Middle East.
"I have said to the Middle East -- when you come to Malaysia, it's an Islamic country, but very moderate.
"You can eat our food, there are mosques everywhere, so you'll be very much at home, yet it is a completely foreign country, a truly Asian country."
After the September 11 terror attacks in the United States many Middle Eastern tourists were reported to be avoiding holiday destinations in Europe and America, partly because of increased difficulties in obtaining travel documents and a feeling they were unwelcome.
A visitor from Saudi Arabia, Abdul Othman Badhou, told AFP that Arab tourists received more respect in Malaysia.
"People in the West and in non-Islamic countries do not treat us with as much respect and friendliness. We are more comfortable here."
Al Mawali, 39, on holiday from Oman with his family of eight, said: "I like to come here because it's safe, inexpensive, and you can go any place you like at any time of the day without fear.
"It is not like Indonesia, which is also an Islamic country, because it is safer here," he said.
Another pull factor for the Arabs is the shopping, from local crafts to modern malls full of designer stores which hold month-long nationwide sales three times a year.
For Eman Saad, 23, who arrived with a tour group of 52 people from Kuwait, the shopping was in itself enough to make Malaysia a choice holiday destination.
"I just love the shopping. And also the feeling that I am not restricted when I want to go somewhere and buy something," she said.
Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir said some 200,000 Arab tourists were expected this year, with the bulk of them visiting Malaysia during their summer holidays, from July to September.
"One of the major decisions we took in 1999 was to turn our entire tourism industry around, and we decided to change our policies, to focus on Asia," he said.
"Since then we have focused our promotional efforts on our neighbours in Asia, firstly, and then only followed by the Middle East.
"It is our vision to become the travel destination in Asia, to truly be Asia's best."
Aggressive advertising campaigns and the boom in tourism from the Middle East have seen airlines such as Emirates, Qatar Airways and Saudi Arabian Airlines increase their flights to Malaysia, with some offering up to two flights daily.
Malaysia recorded a total of 12.8 million tourists in 2001, its highest ever and a 25 percent increase year-on-year, despite experiencing a temporary drop in arrivals after the September 11 attacks.
Last year visitors spent a total of 24.2 billion ringgit (6.3 billion dollars), 39 percent more than in 2000, ensuring that tourism remained Malaysia's second biggest foreign exchange earner, after the manufacturing sector.
Although the biggest contributors to the country's coffers were Singaporeans, who spent 11.64 billion ringgit last year, Arabs are the highest per capita spenders.