Sun, sea, sand and senses

More for their buck: Young travellers now want more personalised and unique value added travel experiences. Here local tourist and tourism management student Willian Ita William tries the traditional blowpipe with the help of Sarawak Cultural Village staff Augustine Lawrence. — ZULAZHAR SHEBLEE / The Star

WHAT usually comes to mind when it comes to tourism in Malaysia?

Most available brochures, if you can find any, often advertise a cornucopia of outdoor activities against the towering KLCC; others will touch on traditional cuisines, arts and crafts with a sandy beach. Or so the general grumblings go. As of now, it is reasonable to say the promotion is dreary and lacking in excitement, at the very least.

This contrasts with the country’s ambitious plans to revitalise its tourism industry as laid out in the Visit Malaysia Year 2026 (VMY2026), which includes attracting younger travellers aged between 16 and 35 to its shores.

Various studies show that Millennial and Gen Z travellers form the fastest growing cohort for travel – as American Express Travel puts it, they are the new "power traveller".

A survey by Collinson, which operates Priority Pass airport lounges, meanwhile shows that these groups will make up half of all travellers in the Asia Pacific region by 2025. These two groups are reported to have a “hyper heightened focus on personalised, value-added experiences.”

In a Skift Research study earlier this year, 70% of Millennial and Gen Z travellers are found to seek out off-the-beaten-path experiences. At the same time, a Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) report highlights that sustainability is a major deciding factor for this generation.

This focus on unique and eco-friendly adventures aligns with Malaysia’s experiential tourism product offerings. However, the question remains – is Malaysia effectively promoting enough authentic travel experiences, particularly to meet the preferences of younger travellers?

Of numbers and plans

Experiential tourism has been defined as a form of tourism that “involves an active and meaningful engagement with a destination’s culture, people, and/or environment to create unique, memorable experiences.”

It usually comprises keeping off the beaten path as well as encountering authentic local activities and cultural exposures.

Eco-conscious: Visitors canoeing at Kenong Eco Forest Park while immersing themselves in nature. Eco–tourism also covers the aspect of nature’s sustainability, an important factor for young tourists. - Tourism MalaysiaEco-conscious: Visitors canoeing at Kenong Eco Forest Park while immersing themselves in nature. Eco–tourism also covers the aspect of nature’s sustainability, an important factor for young tourists. - Tourism Malaysia

The VMY2026 roadmap unveiled by Tourism Malaysia in April outlines plans to boost the number of overall arrivals, in which experiential tourism is placed among the focus points.

The approach to market the country as a destination for experiential tourism includes leveraging major events and festivals, such as MotoGP and the Rainforest World Music Festival.

As with the plans to attract more Gen Z and Millennial travellers, Tourism Malaysia is looking into a “Smart Tourism Model” in which an experiential programme with the use of augmented reality and virtual reality – through the new Tourism Malaysia Super App – will be marketed to enhance the tourists’ experience before, during and after their travel.

The good news is that the other groups of travellers – including the older and from the more conventional China, Europe and Middle East markets – are also seeking more authentic and unique travel experiences, instead of the usual shopping sprees and speedy sightseeing tours.

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The country aims to significantly boost its tourism sector by 2026, with plans to attract 35.6 million inbound tourists and achieve RM147.1bil in receipts. Last year, Tourism Malaysia recorded 20,141,846 tourist arrivals in the country, with most visitors coming from Singapore at 8,308,230, followed by Indonesia (3,108,165), Thailand (1,551,282), China (1,474,114) and Brunei (811,833).

But again, is it enough?

The plan or roadmap sounds good on paper. But as of now, it appears to be taking off without a sense of urgency. Industry players and tour operators say they still feel the slow grind of achieving what is being planned despite the announcement on VMY2026 in March.

“We are now in June and VMY2026 is just about 18 months away. We are moving at a very slow pace. You can ask any Malaysian what they know about the plan. And what about (Tourism Malaysia in planning for) the targeted market?

“If we are talking about Gen Z and Millennials, they are looking to experience new destinations, places they can do check-ins (to mark on their social media) and make good (social media) content.

“But I don’t see that Malaysia is doing enough to attract tourists (even) from our neighbouring countries. I just got back from Bangkok in May and arrived in klia2. I did not see any branding and promotion even on our aircraft to promote VMY2026. There was none,” says Malaysia Scuba Diving Association president Jenny W. Y. Lee.

Lee points out that while the plan does exist, it needs to be put into action now.

“Yes, they have all these new terms to coin on the targeted tourism products such as experiential, sustainable and the like. Just get to work instead of giving out theories (plans on paper).”

Currently, while everyone is on board with marketing experiential tourism to the Gen Z and Millennial segment, not all understand the requirements to create an immersive product.

Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA) president Mint Leong Hoon Min says there is a need to engage with all industry players, particularly the operators, to educate them on actual experiential tourism products.

“Not many know how to package their products. They need to know what experiential means. Like for example, we have harvesting activities or picnics in the paddy fields in Perlis.

“In Kuala Lumpur, for example, if the visit to the Merdeka Square is simply a sightseeing activity, what is so immersive about that?

“You cannot package that as an experiential product. At the very least, be creative and organise some activities there. Give the visitors a good, fun and memorable experience that they will cherish. Something that they’ll want to come back for again.”

Leong’s sentiment is echoed by Kenny Ng, a resort operator in Pahang, who says that many experiential tourism packages do not meet the expectations of travellers.

“Malaysia is not doing enough in (formulating and promoting) experiential tourism, which is a unique product which requires academic and informative structure. In the end, many travellers find (a so-called experiential) tour package not up to their money's worth.”

How to pique interest

Lee says it is important to understand the interests of Gen Z and Millennials when it comes to making their experiences memorable.

Taking advantage of their use of social media, for example, she says tourism authorities can popularise certain picturesque spots as geotagging locations.

“They can even do this along the road between Taman Duta and Bukit Tunku, which boasts the beautiful skyline of Kuala Lumpur city and of course, where a beautiful sunset takes place.

“The Gen Z and Millennial travellers can do a check-in at these places for their online content. It can be either on their TikTok or Instagram. The same can be done for many historical sites (nationwide). This can capture the attention of this new group of travellers.”

There is also a need to rebrand certain locations for the same purpose. Lee says having murals along the streets in the Jonker Walk area in Melaka to depict the state’s Baba and Nyonya culture, for example, can certainly be a hit with the younger crowd.

“We have the products in every state. We have the islands, beaches, food and heritage to be marketed as tourism offerings. But we need to be creative in re-packaging them.”

And what makes a good experiential tourism product?

Ng says an experiential tourism package needs an immersive programme which entails experienced facilitators who know about the product to answer questions from travellers and a professional hands-on guide in the city or during nature excursions, among others.

For example, Ng says his team has created an eco-tourism package, which ranges from six to 16 days, focusing on promoting the conservation and preservation of nature, environment and culture among youths.

“The Gen Z and Millennials are very much aware of the effects of climate change. They want to contribute to saving the Earth.”

What is taking place now?

Several tourism authorities when met say work is being done to ensure the relevance of their experiential tourism packages.

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Sarawak Tourism Board (STB) chief executive officer Sharzede Salleh Askor stresses that Sarawak is going big in educating the region’s local tourism operators to provide a credible experience to visitors, especially for the Gen Z and Millennial tourists.

“(For example) currently we are telling our longhouses (that we are embarking) on what we call a food forest programme. What we do is that we go to the longhouses, meet the people there and talk to them (about serving jungle food as a tourism product).

“It is important to introduce our jungle food (such as ayam pansuh and umai) to visitors. the Sarawak rainforest is the biggest kitchen in the world. Why serve bread or Western food when you should be showcasing our food?”

Busy activities at the Penan long house at Lusong Laku, Belaga, Sarawak. Sarawak Tourism Board has been working hard to maintain the authenticity of the region's tourism products. —GLENN GUAN/The StarpBusy activities at the Penan long house at Lusong Laku, Belaga, Sarawak. Sarawak Tourism Board has been working hard to maintain the authenticity of the region's tourism products. —GLENN GUAN/The Starp

And despite the advent of modernity, Sharzede says responsible tourism ensures to keep our culture and heritage alive and not lose it to the modern progressive movement of trends.

“Even (when) the Singaporean visitors (arrive in Sarawak), their children are amazed when they see a real live chicken for the first time. The STB also wants to make sure the authenticity in everything, such as making sure that the longhouses are not made from brick.”

Meanwhile, Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC) director-general Nizran Noordin says Malaysia has no shortage of authentic cultural experiences to be presented to tourists of all ages.

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He says some examples of immersive cultural enriching experiences that could be highlighted include festivals celebrated by Malaysians and “kampung-stay” or homestay experiences.

“Tour itineraries could also be developed for the traveller that prefers DIY (Do it Yourself) trips, incorporating popular activities such as fishing, local produce harvesting, visits and participating in congregational prayers at the community surau (prayer hall), traditional dancing and cooking and preparing of local or ethnic cuisines.”

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