Rebuilding tourism in Malaysia: A lesson from the past

Talking Tourism
·12-min read

MARCH 15 — In the last article, The Way Forward for Tourism in Malaysia, I made reference to two important factors.

Firstly, the fact that we have all it takes to be the world’s greatest tourist destination. In terms of physical infrastructure, natural attractions, friendly people, cultural heritage and most importantly, the skills and expertise to organise and manage it, we have proven to be exceptional.

Secondly, we have done the job of rebuilding the tourism industry from a similar situation before, and therefore, we can always do it again.

1998 was a disastrous year for tourism in Malaysia. The completion of mega projects and a string of premier international events organised to boost tourism growth did not help much and the year ended with a major decline in tourist arrivals and worse industry performance.

Some of these mega projects included the development of the MSC, KLIA, Bukit Jalil Sports Complex, Putrajaya, KLCC and others in the capital.

Mega events included the 16th Commonwealth Games, Apec Summit, first F1 Malaysia GP, World Cup Golf and more.

While these developments became the foundation for the future growth of tourism, their massive construction in the years before affected tourists’ convenience and on many occasions disrupted its smooth flow.

The obvious things overlooked then were dwindling visitor demand caused by negative visitor experience and absence of an effective PR and marketing programme leading to that special Year of Sports and Recreation.

This situation was a result of limited funds for promotion work. Making matters worse was the Asian currency crisis leading to the devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit and the political upheaval that ensued with street protests.

Nature added another test with the worst haze enveloping most parts of the country, bringing it to the level of Emergency in some areas of Sarawak. Reports of a deadly virus epidemic, the JE or Japanese Encephalitis, only worsened the situation.

As the popular saying goes, “Thinking starts when one is in trouble.” Malaysia had to put its thinking cap on.

To address this major economic crisis, MTeN was activated. Of the many different sectoral initiatives introduced then, rebuilding tourism, as a priority export sector, proved to be most effective.

It resulted in reversing the declining trend and setting global standards for growth in tourism performance and development of the industry. What was the magic and how did it work?

It does not take rocket science to understand this. Two factors appear above others; bold decisions in funding, which enabled a massive global scale tourism marketing and promotions campaign, and the appointment of an able leader and an experienced team to manage it.

And just what were some of these bold decisions? Revamping the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism and Tourism Malaysia to start with.

In one stroke, the minister, deputy minister, secretary general and director general of Tourism Malaysia were replaced with suitably trained industry orientated officers.

This in turn triggered changes at the travel industry associations level and strengthened the network with regional and international tourism organisations. The strong bilateral and multilateral relations led to Malaysia taking centre stage in OIC Tourism and Commonwealth Tourism. Malaysia organised the first Commonwealth Tourism Ministers and the OIC Tourism Ministers Meeting and Travel Mart.

It all started with a clear assessment of the situation and a budget allocation doubling any amount provided before. It was this bold decision that set the pace for the speed and magnitude of industry actions, ranging from advertising and promotions to the hosting of events, hospitality programmes and the activation of competent tourism management teams at federal and state levels.

An extensive promotion campaign was launched for domestic tourism under the slogan of “Cuti Cuti Malaysia.” For the global campaign, “Malaysia, Truly Asia” was introduced for the European and North American markets.

A similar campaign was conducted for the regional market; China, the Middle East, South Asia and Asean. The theme then was “Find the World in Malaysia.” Specific tactical campaigns were also conducted for niche markets like MICE, MM2H, Golf and branding KL as a Shopping Haven.

Recalling the working environment and peculiarities then, the Ministry of Culture Arts and Tourism and all its agencies were put in “war” mode. The chiefs and senior management teams of every organisation operated on a 24/7 work schedule and had regular meetings on weekends and brainstorm sessions stretching past midnight.

The personalities that led the industry at all levels remain legendary. I recall with great fondness the names TS DS (Panglima) Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, DS Dr Leo Mohammad Toyad, DS Tg Adnan Mansor, Datuk Hj. Abdullah Jonid, Datuk Faridah Hussein, the late DS Iskandar Zulkarnain, DS Dr Victor Wee Eng Lai, TS Dr Ong Hong Peng, DS Tg Iskandar Abdullah, TS Bashir Ahmad, TS Dr Idris Jala and Datuk Peter Brokenshire among others.

Their names are respected even more today for their outstanding contributions, and especially considering our acute situation now. They seem irreplaceable. Fortunately, they are still around, for some useful advice.

At the height of activities then, 600 different events were organised at various levels and a three-year advance calendar of all events was produced and distributed.

Among the events organised to support the Visit Malaysia theme, the original Malaysia Fest was transformed into the “Colours of Malaysia’” Parade, featuring 3,000 performers and timed wisely to commemorate the Agong’s birthday, making it a symbolic cultural event of international appeal.

Similarly, all the major religious and ethnic celebrations were upgraded to national scale and hosted by the respective heads of state if not the Agong himself. Thus adding more value and attention to the festivities.

For media coverage and an international hospitality programme befitting such grand events, a special unit within Tourism Malaysia called the Mega Fam Secretariat was set up and a national level committee formed with full industry participation.

Airlines pledged their seats, hotels their rooms, tour operators their guides, vehicles and tour coaches and the tourist attractions their entrance fees and refreshments.

The regular educational tours and hospitality programme which catered for 500 participants annually, soared to 6,000 a year for a few years. They comprised representatives from relevant media, both trade and consumer, opinion leaders, travel planners and tour operators and CEOs of travel related establishments.

For the Colours of Malaysia Parade in 2002, 1,500 of such invitees attended with 75 television crews. The value of publicity received far surpassed the cost of organising the event many times over.

On the promotion front, the travel industry will recall the approach and intensity of the programmes on sales missions. The road shows to India, the Middle East and to many new markets.

In a mission to West Asia in 2000, a 12-day trip took us to nine countries and 11 cities. At each city, the programme began with a breakfast meeting with all Malaysian representatives on the ground, followed by courtesy calls to the minister’s counterpart, quickly accompanied by TV/press interviews for news coverage, lunch meeting with the leaders of the local travel associations, a visit to the local airline chiefs and major tour operators, another press conference in the evening, seminar with local travel agents, a travel mart and ending the evening with a dinner and culture show, hosted for all local dignitaries, media chiefs and travel trade invitees.

The planning and administrative machinery of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism functioned at a heightened level then.

From the weekly post-Cabinet meetings, quarterly Cabinet committee meetings, national tourism action council meetings every other month to various task forces and inter-ministerial meetings operated at optimal levels.

Any issue related to the orderly growth and development of the industry at all levels of tourism campaigns were never left unattended. To facilitate state tourism bodies, an independant tourism action council, funded by the ministry was established in every state.

The arts and culture side of the ministry also saw great improvement. At its height, every state, some major corporations and district councils had their own professional cultural troupes.

Their repertoire was duly choreographed to perform along the theme of our national marketing campaign. By 2003, 22 different cultural troupes were formed worldwide in major markets for our diplomatic missions, local airlines and tour companies to capitalise on for their hospitality programmes.

At the interdepartmental level, active joint committees were formed between the Immigration Department to constantly review visa requirements and entry formalities; with the Ministry of Transport to improve accessibility and terminal facilities and various other agencies that could contribute to the growth of the tourism industry.

On the visa and accessibility issue, huge progress was made for China and South Asian visitors. In a matter of 10 years, we could see how both markets had grown.

India and the whole of South Asia grew; arrivals grew from 50 thousand tourists and 22 direct flights a week to about one million tourists annually and 200 flights a week. China was the same. All this progress was made with the active support and co-operation of the other relevant agencies.

With this solid foundation, a series of leadership changes followed, brilliantly capitalised on with the constant expansion and upgrading of its programmes.

The new initiatives included the promotion of VMY 2007, which coincided with Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of Independence celebrations. The promotion theme “One Golden Celebration” and the blockbuster approach remain one of the best campaigns of all time.

The achievement of Malaysia’s destination profiling, made possible with full encouragement by the government and all industry stakeholders, boosted our tourism industry performance and broke the 20 million tourist arrival threshold, a target set for 2020.

The other period where major progress was achieved was under Pemandu’s Malaysia Tourism Transformation Programme. This time too, it was the carefully researched and bold steps taken in terms of funding and its execution.

All efforts were carefully co-ordinated and tourism arrivals soared higher, setting a new record, every year.

From 1999 to 2014, tourist arrivals to Malaysia grew at a rate surpassing any other destination then. From a mere 5.5 million in 1998, we saw 28.7 million in 2014.

In terms of income, from a paltry RM7 billion, our national coffers showed a corresponding growth trend and received RM86.7 billion. Except for a few exceptional years in between, when major setbacks in international travel were a global issue, like 9/11 and the Iraq War this growth trend continued.

File picture showing tourists at the Dataran Merdeka on a hot day in Kuala Lumpur.  ― Bernama pic
File picture showing tourists at the Dataran Merdeka on a hot day in Kuala Lumpur. ― Bernama pic

Arrivals and performance grew way above the world average. It made Malaysia the most popular destination in Asean, second only to China in Asia, and Turkey among all Muslim countries.

Malaysia made it to the list of 10 most popular tourist destinations in the world by UNWTO. But the performance of Malaysia’s tourism took a major downturn after 2014. Despite repeated attempts at all levels to secure the resource to conduct a proper campaign to reverse this trend, somehow this has not materialised.

Our strategies for some niche market segments also showed similar results. Our Homestay initiative was awarded the UNISYS Award by UNWTO making it the best example for rural tourism development.

For shopping, a few popular travel channels like CNN Traveller placed KL among the world’s best shopping destinations, listing it alongside New York, London and Tokyo.

In featuring golf, our effort to promote and host top golf events like the Malaysia Open, PGA’s CIMB Classic, Sime Darby LPGA and Euro Asia Cup, led to Malaysia being listed as Asia’s top golf destination for a few years and some of our golf courses are still regarded as among the world’s best.

We also made similar progress for the cruise and sailing segment. This period saw the growing popularity of our international sailing events and many new marinas came on-stream. The major seaports too were expanded and upgraded to satisfy the needs of major cruise liners.

Malaysia’s profile then, as a result of all these achievements and recognition, not only benefited mainstream tourism, it actually contributed a great deal to support other sectors related to trade and investment.

These included sub sectors like shopping, edu-tourism, health tourism, MM2H featuring Malaysia as a haven for retirees, MICE sector, triggering the development of convention centres, theme parks, duty free shopping complexes, factory outlets and integrated golf resorts.

On the aviation front, KLIA experienced steady growth of its passenger traffic prompting the development of another terminal dedicated to budget airlines and turning itself into a major hub for airlines in the region, particularly the LCCs.

In conclusion, may I suggest that the decision makers who appear to be standing in the way of the professionals, leave the ground for them. The experience of some senior administrators is working against the grain of the industry.

Comparing the professional Tourism Malaysia officers with them is not wise. Their obsession to dig into the past is an effort in futility.

They should instead focus all their attention to the other functions related to heritage, arts and culture. Tourism Malaysia’s network, management and staff today are better poised for growing the industry.

They are qualified, better exposed and more knowledgeable about the industry than in 1998. The only difference is faith and support from the central authorities.

Correct the representation at the board level, allocate the resources, leave them to their tasks and see the magic happen. And appreciate that tourism thrives on generosity and goodwill and not on doubts and suspicion, as seems to be the preoccupation of late.

* Datuk Seri Mirza Mohammad Taiyab Beg is the chairman of the Association of Ex-Staff of Tourism Malaysia (AESTOM).

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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