Friday November 29, 2002

Wary of West, Muslim tourists from ME
throng Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: When Saudi housing developer Ghassan Nasry considered where to take his family on vacation, he ruled out Western countries because of reports that Arabs traveling there had been harassed.
Then he remembered TV advertisements tempting tourists to try Malaysia. This predominantly Muslim nation in Southeast Asian has long attracted visitors from nearby countries to its pristine beaches and colorful culture.
Now, it is also becoming a hub for Middle Easterners seeking luxury vacations with a peaceful, familiar Islamic backdrop. "There is so much to see and enjoy" in Malaysia, Nasry, 32, said as he strolled with his wife and five children outside the Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest buildings.
"When I go back to Jeddah, I can tell my friends: 'Why must you go to places where you do not feel welcome? Just come to Malaysia!'"The number of Middle Easterners visiting this country has risen steadily since the late 1990s. Following the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, travelers trying to avoid anti-Arab sentiment and distrust in the West have continued to pour into what they consider a friendly, moderate nation.
Malaysia received 66,010 tourists from the Middle East during the three-month Gulf summer holiday season in June-August this year, immigration figures show. This was an increase of 18 percent over the same period in 2001, making the Middle East one of Malaysia's fastest-growing tourist markets. Tourism is Malaysia's second-largest foreign exchange earner, raking in 24.2 billion ringgit (US$6.8 billion) last year, when 12.8 million people visited this country.
Most of the arrivals are from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, but Middle Eastern tourists are much sought after because many are wealthier, take longer vacations and spend time in several Malaysian destinations.
Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, who has led numerous promotional missions to the Middle East, said recently that Malaysia hopes to receive up to 250,000 visitors from that region in 2002, doubling last year's total.
The travelers -- mostly from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Syria, Turkey and Jordan -- usually stop first in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, which mixes mosques and Islamic museums with cosmopolitan facilities such as shopping malls and five-star hotels.
From there, many head for scenic islands such as Langkawi and Penang, which Malaysians call the "Pearl of the Orient." Others opt for cooler hilltop resort areas like Cameron Highlands, filled with strawberry farms and garden playgrounds. No one in Malaysia wants to be left out of this business boom.
Hotels and travel agents have been scrambling to increase their promotional campaigns in the Middle East and cater to the needs of tourists from that region.
Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, director of communications for Malaysia's Shangri-La hotel group, said the group's two beach resorts in Penang had set up new rooms to hold Muslim prayers and hired Arab staffers to operate a special front desk to welcome Middle Eastern guests. "We're making it a point to do all this, knowing that they're not traveling much to America and other Western countries," Suleiman said.
The group sent representatives to tourism fairs in Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates this year, and its efforts seem to be paying off. The two Penang resorts received 21,478 Middle Eastern guests in January-August this year, a 44 percent increase over the first eight months of 2001.