The launch of a marketing campaign by a Malaysian highland resort in Bangkok last week has opened a new chapter in the promotion of intra-regional Asean travel, expected to be a big winner if global tourism does not plunge into crisis next year.
Zulkifly Said, the director of Tourism Malaysia, hailed it as the first time during his nearly three-year tenure that a private Malaysian company had made an independent marketing pitch to Thai visitors. Most private-sector promotions have been under the umbrella of the national or state tourist offices.
He said he would welcome more Malaysian companies following suit, especially as 30 million baht of their tax money was being spent in Thailand on marketing Malaysia.
For the Bukit Tinggi Resort, too, it was the first step in a totally revamped marketing campaign. Rather than rush to Japan, Australia or Europe, the traditional source markets to which most companies turn when selling their products, general manager Teh Ming Wah first decided to target Thailand.
``It seemed to make sense,'' she said. ``Thailand is the second largest source of visitor arrivals to Malaysia after Singapore. The Thai economy appears to be in good shape and there is still a lot of interest in outbound travel, especially incentive travel for companies.''
There is another reason: the five-year-old resort has just received a licence to operate 250 slot machines for its gaming centre due to open in February, and Ms Teh knows that Thai travellers are tiring of the well-worn facilities at their traditional gambling haunt, the Genting Highlands.
Built by Malaysian tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan, a close friend of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the Bukit Tinggi resort cost 600 million ringgit (6.8 billion baht) and consists of a French-themed hotel, a Japanese village, a rabbit park and a golf and country club. More than 500 million ringgit will be spent on the casino as well as a six-star Japanese spa and a French castle.
Located about 3,000 metres above sea level, the resort is run by a team headed by Ms Teh, a former banker who previously managed the Philip Wain health clubs in Malaysia. She says Mr Tan felt her experience would bring in some fresh ideas, especially for the Tatami spa, claimed to be the first Japanese spa outside Japan.
After spending six months sprucing up the product so that it lives up to its promise, Ms Teh said she revamped the marketing plan to focus nearly exclusively on the Asia-Pacific countries, especially India and China.
She said that although Thai visitors to Malaysia were rising rapidly, they were virtually non-existent at the resort, which is dominated by domestic visitors, Singaporean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong visitors.
She spent nearly 100,000 baht on the marketing event in Thailand, with a media conference, presentations to tour operators and trips to selected Bangkok spas. That same amount of money would buy her virtually no exposure in Europe or Japan.
``The fact that many Thai tour operators now know about us already makes this visit a success,'' she said. ``We have learned a lot about the way they package their Malaysian products and we will soon be helping them with special packages, prices and promotions to feature the Bukit Tinggi resort, too.''
Mr Zulkifly said he needed more Malaysian tour companies to step up their profile in Thailand. ``We need more intra-Asean travel,'' he said. ``The future of the long-haul market (from Europe and North America) does not look good. This is a good time for us in Asean to restructure and rethink the way we do our marketing.''
He noted that the long-standing deficit in the balance of arrivals between Thailand and Malaysia was narrowing. In 2001, Malaysian visitor arrivals to Thailand totalled 1,161,490, up 11.5% over 2000. In January-September 2002, the figure was 950,933, up 11.6%.
In turn, Thais visiting Malaysia rose 8.4% to 1,018,797 in 2001, and grew 5% from January-October 2002 to 951,528, up 5%.
Mr. Zulkifly said a higher bilateral tourism flow would help address a key barrier to further growth: the shortage of airline capacity. Flights between the two countries are dominated by THAI and Malaysian Airlines which have a joint services agreement that keeps a lid on seat capacity. The result is fares that are less competitive than those between Bangkok and Singapore, on which 10 airlines operate.
An attempt by Air Andaman to launch a Bangkok-Hat Yai-Kuala Lumpur route on Nov 8 fell through after only a few flights because of problems at the Malaysian end, Mr Zulkifly said.
However, the move by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to forge closer links between the Thai and Malaysian cabinets this past weekend is expected to further boost bilateral trade and travel.
Promotion of intra-Asean travel is also one of the major policy planks of the Asean tourism ministers who are due to meet in Cambodia next month.
- Imtiaz Muqbil is executive editor of Travel Impact Newswire, an e-mail-delivered feature and analysis service focusing on the Asia-Pacific travel industry.