TASKED with bringing in 23 million tourists a year into the country, Culture, Arts and Tourism Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir has been looking long and hard where he can woo such a large number of visitors.
For the whole of last year, there were 13,292,010 arrivals into Malaysia – a mere 4% more than 2001. An extra 10 million tourists, as asked by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, would require almost a 75% increase.
Unperturbed, Kadir has set himself and his deputy Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen the uphill task of scouring the globe for those extra tourists. They need to find the correct strategy to woo the crowd to Malaysia.
Tourism Malaysia’s “Truly Asia” advertisements are a common feature on all international channels, may it be CNN, BBC, CNBC or even AXN. The theme “Malaysia Truly Asia” is familiar to many people around the world.
Some friends holidaying in Turkey last year were surprised when locals greeted them with the theme song there.
However, the Sept 11 and the Bali terror attacks have made Kadir’s mission more difficult, if not impossible.
Earlier this month, the minister came to China to see for himself (and at the insistence of Ng) the potential of getting more visitors from the world’s most populous country.
“I could not believe what I saw. It was a modern country and everywhere I went I saw people who were rich enough to afford an overseas holiday,” said Kadir in an interview at the end of his trip.
His two-week journey took him from Shanghai (east) to Zhengzhou (north-central), Urumqi (north-west), Chongqing (central), Guangzhou (South), Shenzhen and, finally, Hong Kong. He was amazed at the rapid development of China.
“Everywhere I went I did not see any poor people. I have been told that 100 million Chinese can afford to travel but we are only able to attract 557,000 of them. We must work harder to woo more of them to Malaysia,” said the minister.
Kadir met travel agents and potential customers and heard about the difficulties the Chinese have in trying to get to Malaysia. There were two main hurdles – visas and flights.
Jariah Mohd Said, the Immigration Department’s director of visa, pass and permit division, was in Kadir's delegation.
There are now only four visa issuing offices in China and all of them – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong – are located in the east. This means that Chinese tourists must travel to these cities to apply for their visas. It's a major deterrent to many of them who want to visit Malaysia.
“She tells me that the Government is looking at the possibility of implementing e-visa procedures for China,” said Kadir.
“We need to look for credible travel agencies to act as agents to collect the required information so that we can process the visa application electronically.”
It is understood that the Chinese tourists would be issued with their electronically approved visa on arrival in Malaysia. Australia is already using this procedure to issue e-visas in Malaysia.
However, the Chinese agents raise another issue with Kadir – flight access or, more precisely, the lack of it.
Malaysia Airlines flies to only four cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen and Guangzhou. Again, these cities are located on the eastern side of China. This means that even if the visa issue is resolved, the Chinese from other cities will still have to make extensive internal travel to get to Malaysia.
Again, Kadir anticipated the query and called for a high-powered brainstorming session in Hong Kong. Among those present at the meeting were Ng, Tourism Malaysia director-general Datuk Abdullah Junid, Malaysian Ambassador to China Datuk Abdul Majid Mohd Khan, MAS managing director Datuk Mohd Nor Mohd Yusof, Malaysia Friendship and Trade Centre president Datuk Abdul Rahim Bakri, and the Malaysian consuls-general of Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
Also present were senior MAS officials and all the Tourism Malaysia overseas directors in China and Taiwan.
Kadir, who chaired the meeting, pointed out that there was an urgent need to rectify the situation in order to attract more Chinese tourists to Malaysia.
Stressing that MAS had an important role to play, he said direct flights to Malaysia was a “conduit for tourism.”
“MAS must be prepared to put on additional flights to the present destinations as well as new ones. We have pleaded with them (MAS) to act fast.
“After my visit here, I am now sure MAS can make money flying to new destinations,” Kadir said.
He added that MAS only needed to give them a four-month lead-time and Tourism Malaysia could swing into action by getting local travel agents to help.
“I am sure with the opening of new destinations, there will also be an increase in trade between the two countries. The ambassadors and his consuls-general have agreed to help get in touch with the local authorities of the new destinations to ensure support.”
He identified five new destinations – Chongjing, Zhengzhou, Shenyang, Wuhan and Xian – that MAS should fly to, with priority being given to the first two cities. MAS, it seems, has agreed to look into the request.
Kadir also suggested that MAS increased its frequency between the existing destinations in China and Taiwan as well as fly from China to other locations in Malaysia, namely Kuching and Kota Kinabalu, which he said had world class facilities, especially for eco-tourism.
Kadir said the meeting also came up with a five-pronged plan to boost Chinese and Taiwanese tourist arrivals:
o INCREASE the frequency of advertisements;
o MORE flights by MAS between Malaysia and China;
o APPOINT a PR company to promote Malaysia to the local media;
o HOLD more familiarisation trips for travel agents and the media; and
o SET up tourist promotion action committees for Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The committee, to be headed by the Malaysian foreign mission chiefs, will meet regularly to discuss ways to improve tourism promotion. Members of the committee include officials from Tourism Malaysia, MAS and Immigration Department.
“I am glad to report that all parties agreed to work as a team. I have asked the committee heads to contact me if they encounter problems.”
Kadir announced at the meeting that he was revising the tourist arrival targets for his Tourism Malaysia offices for the coming year.
His announcement nearly floored everyone in the room, especially the Tourism Malaysia directors.
“I want a million visitors each from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. I have to set high targets.
“If the story (of Malaysia) really reaches the common man, we can even achieve five-fold (arrivals) in a short time.”
The current arrival figures are 557,647 from China, 209,706 from Taiwan and 116,409 from Hong Kong.
Kadir said he set similar high targets for his officers in Thailand and Singapore and the increase in arrivals from these neighbouring countries was tremendous.
“We practically knocked on every door in Singapore.”
Asked if he was aware that Taiwan and Hong Kong were going through a recession, Kadir said: “They still go on holiday and Malaysia is just a short flight away.”