Service with a smile

CHINESE tourists aren’t exactly shining examples of well-mannered and law-abiding visitors in any country, and because China is so big, we’re forced to deal with everything from the high-heeled rich tourists down to the peasant types making their first overseas trips.

But every nation wants a piece of the Chinese tourist pie, despite the occasional bad press involving host countries and these mainlanders.

The number of Chinese making their way abroad will more than double to 259 million in 2030 from 97.5 million this year, said a study by Euromonitor International. This was revealed at the World Travel Market in London. The number will far outweigh second-placed US with 159 million outbound trips and Germany with 138.6 million. So, the attention is surely on cash-loaded Chinese tourists with the appetite for branded luxury goods and fine dining.

Thailand made headlines for introducing special immigration lanes dedicated to them to extend goodwill. Chinese passport holders are now able to utilise any of 18 Chinese-only lanes at Suvarnabhumi. Don Mueang, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Hat Yai airports will soon have dedicated lines for Chinese tourists as well. The pursuit of Chinese wealth has made things that competitive.

Our government must understand that they are our customers. We are selling Malaysia as a product. They are here to spend, meaning they should be treated as customers, and shouldn’t be made to feel unwelcome. In my years travelling overseas, I’ve found most immigration officers can never put on a smile, and they look as if they are doing visitors a favour by stamping their passports.

Deputy Tourist Police chief Pol. Maj Gen Surachet Hakpal said the VIP lanes, staffed by Chinese-speaking immigration officers, were meant to display Thailand’s “hospitality and sincerity” towards Chinese tourists. In the past six years, China has become Thailand’s top tourist provider. In 2017, more than a quarter of Thailand’s 35 million tourists were from there. The swift action by the Thai authorities was taken after a boat mishap off Phuket in July, which saw 47 Chinese nationals killed. It led to 600,000 Chinese tourists cancelling their trips there, setting Thailand back US$1.11bil (RM4.65bil) in revenue lost.

In September, Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered concerned agencies to speed up restoring the confidence of Chinese tourists after a mainland visitor was assaulted by a security guard at Don Mueang International Airport.Prayut’s instruction came after a video clip showing the guard briefly scuffling with and then hitting a Chinese man received wide coverage in the Chinese media.

Getting to the point, Malaysia should be worried, or more appropriately, alarmed!

Tourist arrivals from mainland China to Malaysia dropped by an estimated 30% to 35% during their National Day break in October, compared to last year. Industry players said this was the first time Malaysia posted a dip in tourist arrivals from China during their “golden week”, or peak tourism season in the Middle Kingdom. China’s “golden week” last year, from Oct 1 to 7, saw about 180,000 Chinese tourists coming to Malaysia.

“Inbound tourism from China was very weak this time. The special feature I noticed this time around was that local tour guides went overseas for holidays during this golden week,” said Datuk Keith Li, who owns the GTC Group travel agency jointly with the Chinese government and is also president of the China Entrepreneurs Association in Malaysia.

For Chinese tourists, the first consideration when choosing destinations is whether the host nation is friendly to China. The others are security, attractions and shopping.

Although Chinese tourists love Malaysia’s beaches, culture and food, Li said he is “not optimistic” about Malaysia getting three million arrivals from China this year, saying his sentiments are echoed by Mint Leong, deputy president of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association.

Remarks made by Malaysian leaders are crucial to how Chinese tourists perceive our country as a destination choice. If seemingly anti-China remarks are made, whether real or otherwise, that won’t help the cause. But there’s more, obviously.

According to a research by ForwardKeys, countries need to remember four important factors if they are to secure a larger share of the Chinese outbound tourism pie.

They include the development of direct flights, visa convenience, sensitivity to the Chinese holiday calendar and a reputation for being a safe place to visit. ForwardKeys predicts future travel patterns by analysing 17 million flight booking transactions a day. According to its report, the increase in Chinese travel to Ireland during May to August this year illustrates the value of new direct flights. Ireland experienced a negative 2017 and a decrease of 7.8% in the number of Chinese arrivals during January to April 2018.

“However, three new routes reversed the downward trend and resulted in a 4.1% uplift in Chinese visitor arrivals during the May to August period. Other examples include Belgium and Greece, where new direct routes led to growth in Chinese visitors during May to August 2018. The benefits of visa reform were particularly notable in Serbia, which experienced a 173% increase in flight arrivals from China in 2017, after the country waived visas for Chinese tourists.

“Serbia also saw triple-digit growth in Chinese arrivals during the first eight months of 2018. ForwardKeys previously reported other substantial increases in Chinese tourism due to visa relaxation policies, most notably to Morocco and the UAE.

“Sensitivity to the Chinese calendar is important because holidays such as the Chinese New Year and National Day Golden Week see very large numbers of people seeking overseas trips. A good understanding of the subtleties of Chinese holidays will greatly help the industry to plan, anticipate and capitalise on demand. Destination marketeers can better time their campaigns, hotel managers can better prepare to make Chinese visitors feel welcome and retailers can stock items more likely to appeal to the Chinese tourist.”

The report states that security concerns are crucial too as “after a wave of terror attacks afflicted Continental Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016, Chinese visitors stayed away.

“However, as those destinations have been seen to be safer, the Chinese market has recovered. For example, Turkey, which is benefiting from the China-Turkey Tourism Year 2018 and an improved security image, has seen a 69% year-on-year spike in arrivals between January and August this year.”

As a seasoned traveller, I have concluded that we have lagged behind other Asean countries like Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam in wooing tourists, and as more Chinese tourists travel, they will make comparisons of the best service provided.

Sabah has become a favourite destination for younger Chinese tourists, who have better income, because of the direct flights and crystal-clear seawater. They like Sipadan, but look at Semporna, the gateway to the best islands in the world. Let’s be honest, Semporna is a gigantic rubbish dump and the huge presence of foreigners, presumably illegals, hardly makes visitors (Malaysians included) feel safe. It’s pathetic that such deplorable situations can remain unchanged despite a deluge of complaints.

Hopefully, our Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister, Sabahan Datuk Mohammadin Ketapi, will order a clean-up. Despite the fatalities involved, I’m not sure if we have learnt from boat mishaps that we, too, have experienced in Sabah.

Last January, a tourist boat ferrying 28 Chinese tourists and three crewmen from Kota Kinabalu to Mengalum island capsized. Malaysians have always taken safety lightly and we’re no different from the Thais. And if we aren’t careful, we will have to deal with the same issues again unless there is constant enforcement by the authorities.

Malaysia has declared 2020 Visit Malaysia Year and that means the Tourism Ministry, as a revenue earning body, must get its act together to hit its projected target. The question is, how much has been done so far?

And certainly, the ministry should seek the help of stakeholders to make 2020 a hugely successful event.

And for a start, let’s send the message down – tourists are pelanggan (customers) and not merely pelawat (visitors), and those using our airlines aren’t just penumpang (passengers), so paying customers must be treated like royalty, and that service is the best advertisement for our country.

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Opinion , Politics , Wong Chun Wai , On the beat


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