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Finding the right strategies Print E-mail
Sunday, 22 February 2009 13:56

This 2009 is definitely going to be a tough year for the tourism industry across the world as the worsening economic crisis causes long-haul visitors to stay home and regional travellers to cut short their trips to cut back on spending.

And bracing for the challenges ahead, most tourism authorities across the Asian region have already set their tourist-arrival targets lower for 2009.

For instance, Hong Kong is expecting a shortfall of 1.6% in tourist arrivals for 2009 compared with 29.5 million in 2008, while Singapore anticipates its tourist arrivals this year to fall between 9 and 9.5 million, compared with 10.1 million last year. For Thailand, where tourism is one of the pillar industries to the economy, the number of foreign visitors is expected to fall from 14.24 million last year to 14 million in 2009.

In line with the regional trend, Malaysia’s tourist-arrival target of 20 million for 2009 represents a decline of 9% from the numbers achieved last year.

Azalina ... I have always reiterated my idea of “two countries, one destination”. Singapore should not be seen as a competitor, but as a partner

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman in an interview with StarBizWeek recently says aggressive and targeted campaigns to promote Malaysia to the world would be her ministry’s defensive mode against falling short of the “lowered” tourist-arrival target for this year.

But while the Tourism Ministry endeavours to “sell Malaysia” aggressively to foreigners, Azalina points out that it is going to take a concerted effort by everyone in the country to make tourism Malaysia a greater success.

Undoubtedly, by merely looking at the figures, one can say Malaysia’s tourism industry has come a long way since 1998 to where it is today.

Total tourist arrivals and receipts had grown from 5.5 million people and RM8.6bil, respectively, in 1998, to 22.05 million tourists with total receipts estimated at RM48.5bil last year.

About half of the tourists visiting Malaysia are from its neighbour Singapore – a natural tendency, given the close proximity and easy access to move between both countries.

Similarly, Hong Kong’s tourist arrivals are dominated by Mainland Chinese, who represent 57.1% of its total foreign visitors last year.

An industry observer points out that it does not really matter where our tourists come from as long as they contribute to the income of the country. He says: “At the end of the day, it is all about the money.”

Below is the excerpt of the interview with Azalina:

It’s all about the money

Starbizweek: The Government is targeting 20 million tourists for 2009. Given the present economic headwind, do you think the numbers are achievable? How?

Azalina: We believe that with the right strategies, we can hit the numbers. The whole idea of tourism Malaysia this year is to work at different regions and market segments with different approaches to “sell Malaysia”. I don’t believe we can use the same marketing strategy on the different countries of the world.

Take the Middle Eastern and Chinese tourists. For the Middle Eastern tourists, they like Malaysia, first because of the shopping experience, then the weather, and they are comfortable with the halal food environment. For the Chinese tourists, they are certainly very comfortable with what Malaysia has to offer because there are many Chinese descendants here, and then, there is a casino in Genting Highlands and good food in Penang.

In addition, we have the thematic and tactical campaigns, whereby we will focus on promoting niche products such as medical and health, and educational tourism, as well as meeting, incentive, convention and exhibition (MICE) and Malaysia My Second Home programme (MM2H) to increase tourist expenditure.

We also plan to form strategic alliances and smart partnerships with foreign airlines, national tourism organisations and tour operators to minimise the impact of the global economic challenges.

We also want to introduce new products and offer special packages so that tourists would not get bored of visiting Malaysia. Providing them something new and fresh will help us improve tourist retention or encourage repeat visitors.

Singaporeans have long been the main driver of our tourism industry. Any plans to diversify and improve the spread of tourist arrivals?

Azalina: Increasing tourism revenue is our main objective. So, whether it is medium or long haul, we want tourists to lengthen their stay and increase their spending in Malaysia.

(Based on the statistics of 2007, Singaporean tourists stayed an average 4.6 days and spent an average of about RM2,000 per person, while the average length of stay by tourists from Saudi Arabia was 10.1 days with an average per capita expenditure of RM8,000.)

We believe Singapore will continue to provide us with the highest number of potential and repeat tourists because of easy access and the connectivity between us. But we are also looking at the Indonesian market to bring in more tourists.

One thing we cannot deny is the fact that Asean countries will continue to play the role of giving us the continuous and constant flow of tourists because of our closeness with each other.

And especially in this time of global economic crisis, intra-Asean travel is more likely going to be the sector that can help us counter the potential shortfall of tourists from other countries. So, we are actively promoting it.

On another note, I have always reiterated my idea of ‘two countries, one destination’. Singapore should not be seen as a competitor, but as a partner. We can target tourists who visit Singapore by working closely with the Singaporean government and tour operators, and come up with packages that will include Malaysia as part of their visits, and vice versa. Through this, we will be able to attract more tourists and create a better spread of tourist arrivals.

The long-haul tourist segment is expected to slow down drastically. How do you approach this challenge?

Azalina: I think we should not see the long-haul market as one that is in destitute. Rather, we should continue to target the market with even more aggressive strategies.

I believe Malaysia still has the ‘pull-factor’ to attract long-haul tourists because of our position as an affordable tourist destination. For instance, to many of the people in Europe, the ringgit is still low compared to their currencies. Also, our hotel rates are among the cheapest in the Asean region.

So, even for the budget travellers, there is affordability and accessibility. And the good thing is, we do not discriminate whether the foreigners come here as budget or non-budget tourists.

The services we offer to them are the same.

Nevertheless, to be effective in drawing more tourists to our country, I believe we should focus on tactical campaigns. Say, we want to “sell Malaysia” to the Australian market. We cannot assume every Australian tourist wants to do the same thing in Malaysia. There are different segments of society in that market that we can target such as the pensioner, young professionals, university students and children. And we attract them by offering them what they like most such as eco-tourism to nature lovers and MM2H to the silver-hair segment.

Are we targeting any new market as long-haul tourists?

Azalina: Oh, yes... we are looking at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. With the oil money that they have, they are certainly a good potential to us. But we must do more aggressive promotions and improve our connectivity with them.

Every minute is money

How effective is the branding campaign of ‘Malaysia-Truly Asia’ in promoting tourism?

Azalina: Since the launch of the ‘Malaysia - Truly Asia’ campaign in 1999, tourist arrivals had risen from eight million to 22.05 million last year, and total receipts were up from RM12bil to RM46bil as at the end of 2007.

If that is not enough, let’s consider the more than 25 international awards that we have bagged so far for the campaign.

These include the AMEGold award for ‘Asia’s Best Long-Term Marketing and Branding Campaign’ by Asia-Pacific’s leading marketing trade magazine, Media; and the first-ever triple gold awards from Pacific Asia Travel Association for the television, print and website categories in 2007.

And for three consecutive years from 2006 to 2008, Malaysia had been named ‘The World’s Best Tourism Destination’ by the US-based Global Traveller Magazine.

More importantly, when I meet people overseas, the people there can sing back to me that signature tune of ‘Malaysia-Truly Asia’.

With that tagline, we want to send out the message that if you want to see the whole of Asia, you just come to Malaysia. A lot of people understand that tagline and want to come to Malaysia to see for themselves.

Then again, we may assume that those from similar background may not be interested to come to Malaysia. But that is not true – we have a high number of tourists coming from China, India, Asean and West Asia.

There is a notion that we are not doing enough to woo tourists. What is your comment?

Azalina: The numbers speak for themselves. I think it is totally unfair for Malaysians to say we are not doing enough to bring in tourists.

The perception is that we are not wooing enough tourists despite all the efforts. The underutilisation of KLIA, for instance, is a direct reflection of that. What do you think?

Azalina: Oh well, that’s why I tend to have conflicts with some local airline and airport management companies. For the fact that we have KLIA at a location with such vast space... there are so many things that we can do to promote and make it tourist-friendly. But this is beyond my jurisdiction.

When you talk about tourism, there must be a coordinated effort by everyone. It cannot be a competition between airlines, or a competition between hotels and between governments. It must be a complimentary relationship between all the entities that are involved directly or indirectly in the tourism business.

Nevertheless, judging from the number of tourist arrivals, Malaysia is currently the No 1 tourist location within Asean, and No 2 within the whole of Asia after China. I think it is high time for us to appreciate our own strength and stop comparing ourselves with others.

How is the MM2H programme progressing?

Azalina: Well, we acknowledge that there are still many weaknesses in the programme and we have brought these up to the Cabinet committee. We all agree that this programme has great potential, so we want to make the application process more easy, accessible and faster for those who want to be a part of it.

We cannot be offering the MM2H programme with too many conditions and regulations attached. For instance, we cannot be telling people to park their money in our banks, and then be suspicious of their intention and ask them so many questions as if they are terrorists or money launderers.

I believe that if we make the MM2H programme more flexible, more foreigners would want to participate in it. After all, Malaysia is an affordable place to live in.

The Cabinet has agreed on making some changes to the programme, and I hope we can come up with an improved MM2H programme soon.

What about eco, medical and educational tourism?

Azalina: For eco-tourism, we are already in a very good position in terms of having the right infrastructure and natural resources. For instance, we can boast of forest reserves like Taman Negara and beautiful islands like Perhentian and Sipadan.

Having said that, it is also important for every state to have sustainable development policies, so that we do not give foreigners the impression that we encourage eco-tourism but we do not have policies that support eco-tourism.

I am very pleased that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is willing to work with us in this aspect. We have formed a joint committee to brainstorm better approaches and policies to support the environment.

As for medical and educational tourism, a lot more can be done to improve these sectors. For medical tourism, we are advantaged because we have good hospitals and doctors, and we can offer value-for-money quality medical services.

So, I believe we are actually in a better position than Singapore and Thailand. I see the potential of Indonesians who used to go to Singapore for medical services diverting their preference to Malaysia, given the current economic climate.

How do you plan to improve these two segments?

Azalina: We are working closely with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education. Where changes need to be done, we are pushing for it to be done fast, because in the tourism business, every minute is money.

Easy money to earn

What are the challenges you encounter when promoting Malaysia to foreigners?

Azalina: One of the challenges is the state of our public facilities, especially toilets. I have to say Malaysians have very bad toilet habits. I always do spot checks on toilets whenever I am around tourist areas, and I always come out feeling disappointed.

The people in charge of that particular building or premise will always have good excuses for the state of their toilets.

We must have good and proper facilities to make tourists feel comfortable when they come to our country so that they have reasons to visit Malaysia again later.

I also feel challenged with the existence of some ‘unscrupulous personalities’. For example, there have been complaints that some of our taxi drivers and even tour guides have not been honest in their dealings. So, we hope that with the setting up of the Public Complaints Bureau, tourists who voice their grievances can help us identify our weaknesses, so that we can improve.

What is your ministry going to do about the cleanliness of facilities (or the lack of it) issue?

Azalina: I can say it is not the sole responsibility of the Tourism Ministry to ensure cleanliness, but the local and state governments as well as the local communities should also play their part.

On our part, we will continue with our aggressive campaigns to promote Malaysia, but we hope the local communities will have that sense of responsibility and awareness of the role they play. The public cannot just leave everything up to the government. It doesn’t work that way.

Are you satisfied with the infrastructure that we have in Malaysia in helping to promote tourism?

Azalina: Definitely not. Sometimes, I even feel embarrassed because Malaysia has such great potential and yet most infrastructure and facilities are poorly maintained.

Take our signboards. They are just pathetic and this bothers me a lot. Be it highway, location or product signboards, we just don’t seem to have good signboards. And I don’t know why! Is it because of multiple jurisdictions or different entities that are in charge of signboards?

I hope that the local government agencies would take the responsibility to ensure that there are adequate and good signboards within their respective areas.

What’s most important is that all of us need be aware that Malaysia is a tourist country – a ‘tourist star’ – and it is the equal responsibility of ALL Malaysians to see that our tourism products and facilities are well maintained.

After all, tourism is not just about the government benefiting, but also the people benefiting as well. You see, tourism money is very easy to earn. The minute the tourist arrives, it is already money to us. The way they spend on transportation, food, accommodation, and so on so forth, makes all businesses inter-related.

That’s why so many countries in the world want to make tourism sector as one of their major income drivers. As for Malaysia, I believe we are already on the right track to achieving this.

If the ministry continues with its aggressive marketing campaigns, and Malaysians respond positively to the roles they can play, then we can earn much more tourism money, and make our country the ideal tourist destination for anyone in the world. But it must be a concerted effort by all levels of society in Malaysia.

Has the rising crime rate in Malaysia made us less popular as a tourist haven?

I always make a standard defence by saying that the crime rate in Malaysia is still low compared to other countries. Even when one travels to other countries, there is also the risk of falling victim to crime there. It could happen anywhere and to anyone. I think what really matter is that our police are making the effort to reduce crime in Malaysia.

(Crime rate in Malaysia for 2007 was 772 cases for every 100,000 population, compared with Singapore’s 740.7 cases for every 100,000 population, Hong Kong’s 1,166, Japan’s 1,569, Australia’s 4,470 and Rome’s 8,341.)

Spending money at home

How do you plan to drive domestic tourism?

Azalina: With the ongoing global economic challenges, we encourage Malaysians to tour domestically and spend their money within the country. We have the Zoom! campaign to promote domestic tourism and we do not differentiate between opposition or non-opposition states.

We also have various visuals to promote the different parts of the country, and we want to make domestic tourism more interesting for Malaysians by coming out with new tourism products and packages.

The Zoom! billboard campaign has attracted some criticisms. How would you respond to them?

Azalina: As I have explained this many times, even in other countries, or some states in Malaysia, for that matter, certain billboards do have visuals of their leadership.

Then again, we have also changed our billboard visuals according to the events happening in that particular place and time. Visuals are part of our publicity and promotional campaigns that we cannot do without.

At the end of the day, we still spend less, compared to some other countries (if you like), on our publicity and promotional campaigns. Last year, we spent about RM200mil, or only about 5% of our total tourism receipts, when others normally take 10%.

What is your personal take on tourism Malaysia?

Holidaying, or taking a vacation is a very personal experience to each individual. Everyone does it. No one can tell me they don’t take a vacation. I think that’s a lie. The question is just whether one is travelling domestic or abroad – or the choice of location that one makes to be in.

I believe if we keep promoting Malaysia to people – Malaysians and non-Malaysians alike – about what we have in the country, the ministry has already made a good economic strategy on its part.

 

Source: theStar



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