Jun 10, 2007

Putting Malaysia on the world map

Putting Malaysia on the world map
Sunday June 10, 2007

Travel and tourism is the country’s second largest income spinner after manufacturing. It is a big though relatively young business, especially with this being Visit Malaysia Year and the nation’s 50th birthday.

HOW many times have you heard your parents mentioning Morib as the seaside place during their time?

Located at the southern end of the Selangor state, Morib is hardly an attraction now although historically, it is noted for being one of the first landing points on the west coast for the British and Indian Army liberation forces during World War II.

In the 60s and maybe early 70s, when the subject of holiday came up, locals would inevitably head for places where their relatives were. Travelling outside those perimeters was a rarity unless you came from a wealthy family.

Recalled one tour agent, “It was the norm then. When school holidays came up, we would go visit our aunties and uncles who lived in different towns and states. It was a thrill just to be in their houses. At that time, trees were plenty, pollution was less ... just doing simple things like roaming around the garden was joyous enough. Or, our parents would take us to Port Dickson to spend the day at the beach.”

Times have changed.

Travel and tourism is a big though relatively young business here, especially with this being Visit Malaysia Year and the nation’s 50th birthday. It is the country’s second largest income spinner after manufacturing.

Tourism in Malaysia dates back to 1959 when the first Tourism Department was set up.

Unfortunately, there were no hard records to justify the significant role played by tourism at that time as the Bureau of Statistics only limited its findings to external trade and estate agriculture.

Besides, tourism hardly made any profound impact on the economy then – until the department was upgraded to the Tourism Development Corporation in 1972. It then charted a new era in the history of Malaysian tourism.

That was the same year Malaysia Airlines was formed and together, they worked tirelessly on putting Malaysia on the world tourism map.

In the 80s, increased financial affluence, where more people could afford cars, improved infrastructure and better public transportation services, saw the domestic tourism market booming.

Land-based transportation including buses, coaches, and rail was the primary method of transportation for all tourists travelling to and from Malaysia although locals preferred to drive to their domestic destinations.

Morib was forgotten as there were more places to visit like Teluk Batik (Pahang) Ipoh, Penang, Pulau Pangkor and Langkawi.

The 90s saw the emergence of Star Cruises and low-cost carrier Air Asia, which allowed connectivity into Malaysia to improve by leaps and bounds. The reduced travelling costs have also allowed the lower income groups to get a taste of being in the air and visiting another destination.

Hotels started sprouting up all over the country, especially five-star ones. Our five-star hotels offer some of the cheapest room rates in the region for unparalleled luxury. Then, with the introduction of the nationwide Mega Sale Carnival in 1999, the economy received a boost from the retail sector. The Malaysian tourism authority has undertaken efforts to position Malaysia as a leading international shopping destination.

Each Mega Sale has managed to attract an additional half a million foreign visitors and day-trippers from the neighbouring countries, on top of the normal tourist arrivals. The effort facilitated the growth in tourism expenditure and consumer demand, which enhanced the growth of retail trade.

Kudos must be given to Tourism Malaysia for their Malaysia Truly Asia tagline and its catchy jingle. It portrays Malaysia as a peaceful, colourful and festive multicultural nation with many diverse religions and cultures living together in perfect harmony, a tourism experience encompassing the whole of Asia within one comprehensive destination.

Events such as Petronas Malaysia F1 Grand Prix, Le Tour de Langkawi, Langkawi International Maritime and Air Show Exhibition (Lima) and other world-class events further enhanced the image of Malaysia as a desirable holiday destination.

Since it was introduced in 1999, medical and health tourism has also contributed handsomely to the national economy. Last year (2006), a total of 296,687 health tourists visited Malaysia yielding revenues totalling RM203.66 million.

However, the tourism industry, like most businesses, is not without its challenges and uncertainties. They include a distorted perception of the country, global uncertainties such as SARS, avian flu, natural catastrophes, acts of terrorism and lack of synergy support. These factors may impede tourism development and it may not be able to play an effective role in the Malaysian economy.

The industry has come a long way since with almost 50% (2005) of the national workforce being employed either directly or indirectly in the tourism sector i.e. in hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, airlines and transportation.

With VMY2007 timed to coincide with 50 years of independence, tourist numbers were initially off to a slow start. But in February, the arrivals were up by 9.7% compared with that of last year’s.

Tourism Malaysia’s latest statistics reveal that Singaporeans made up the bulk of the visitors (1,641,459), followed by Thailand (270,591), Indonesia (257,980), Brunei (125,435), China (117,939), Japan (61,133), India (53,870), Britain (51,213), Australia (50,296) and South Korea (41,595).

Top tourist sites among locals and foreigners are Kuala Lumpur, Penang, the islands of Pulau Langkawi, Pulau Redang, Pulau Perhentian, Pulau Pangkor, and Pulau Tioman; Kota Baru, Miri – Mulu, Kuching, Kota Kinabalu, Lumut, Ipoh, Malacca, Taman Negara, Johor Baru and Desaru. Sadly, with the exception of Genting Higlands, other hilly areas like Cameron Highlands, Frasers Hill and Maxwell Hill are not as popular as they once used to be.

Recording more than a million tourists a month during low season is indeed a positive trend and is line with the government’s aim of registering more than one million visitors each month, to lead up to the targeted 20.1 million tourists this year with an estimated total spending of RM44.5 billion.

The stability of a country remains a major consideration for tourists, especially those from Europe and North America. Being the catalyst for growth, the tourism industry has opened up new avenues and provided many with hope, career and a future.

Today, almost half of a century later, the industry has moved with impressive celerity. With a stable government and its continued cooperation with other countries to combat terrorism and crime, favourable trends should be sustainable for the Malaysia’s tourism industry in the coming years. -- Sunday Metro.