GETTING more Americans to come to Malaysia since 2001 has been a hard sell. The number of arrivals from the United States went down from 145,827 in 2001 to 127,920 in 2002 before rising to 131,073 in 2003.
There seem to be signs of better days, based on last year’s figures of 145,094, which is almost at the 2001 level.
In terms of tourist dollars, however, the signs are even better. Malaysia earned RM363.2mil in 2001 and RM344.4mil in 2002. Its earnings in 2003 surpassed that of 2001 when it raked in RM381.1mil.
This year more Americans are expected, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
This is in no small measure due to Malaysia Airlines (MAS) and Tourism Malaysia, who have been working hard since the events of Sept 11, 2001to portray Malaysia as a safe and value-for-money tourist destination.
Rahim Haron, Tourism Malaysia’s vice-president for the US Eastern Region and Caribbean, has been creating a higher profile for Malaysia using culture and dance to showcase the country’s diversity.
And he is getting good vibes.
Like many of its offices around the world, the Tourism Malaysia office has its own cultural group known as the Malaysian Cultural Dance Troupe of New York. The 25-member group is made up of not just Malaysians but also Americans, Japanese, Koreans and Chinese (from China).
Children of diplomats and officers serving at the Malaysian mission also form part of the group but they leave once their parents are posted elsewhere or return home.
“Fortunately for us there are many Malaysians living and working in New York who are interested in culture and have joined the group. Unlike other stations where a trainer was brought from Kuala Lumpur, we were fortunate to find talent here,” said Rahim.
The group was started in 2001 and was trained by a former member of the National Theatre in Malaysia, Lim Teng Kok, who has since returned.
Nowadays, the training is done by lead dancer Sylvia Sidin Orow, who has been with the group since its inception.
Sylvia, who used to perform at the Sabah Harvest Festival, Malaysia Fest and beauty pageants, said the group had blended so well that it was more like a family.
“A number of the girls are like me who take part because it reminds us of home. That’s why they come for practices without fail,” she said.
“For some this is their only form of recreation and a chance to be among Malaysians who speak the same language and understand each other.”
She said the foreigners in the group also blended in well and some were good enough to help train some of the newer members.
There aren't any Indian dancers in the group, so the dances are performed by Malaysians of other races and this always wins lots of applause.
To keep up with the latest dances and learn new steps the group watches recorded video performances of the KL City Hall cultural dance troupe.
“During this time of the year and around summer when we are called regularly to perform at functions, we have training sessions four days a week for two-and-a-half hours,” said Sylvia.
Rahim said the group had performed in major cities along the Eastern Coast including Miami, Atlanta, Washington DC, Savanna in Georgia, in Ohio state and also joined up with Malaysian dancers to perform in Los Angeles.
The group even performed in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.
“It has proved to be an effective way to promote Malaysia and nowadays our cultural dance troupe has been invited to perform at a variety of functions,” said Rahim.
May has been designated “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month” and every year it is celebrated with music, dance, art and crafts, traditional dress and authentic food. It was the busiest month for the cultural troupe.
The Malaysia Association of New York organised Malaysia Day at the Flushing Mall and a huge crowd turned up to see the dancers' performance, Malaysian fashion as well as to savour local delicacies.
Flushing is often referred to as the second Chinatown in New York and the crowd that turned up was largely Asian, many of them Malaysians.
At the Union Square Street fair in New York City, held in conjunction with the Heritage month, there was a huge mixed crowd.
“It was an ideal venue and we used it fully to promote Malaysia,” said Rahim.
He said they had booked a number of stalls to sell Malaysian food and desserts.
“I instructed those selling food to keep the price low to ensure that more people could taste our fare. Stalls from other countries were selling food items for as much as US$7 (RM26.60).
“It worked well and within a few hours everything was sold. My idea is not just to make money but to also use the event as a promotion.
“Next year, when we take part we will have more stalls and those who come will remember us for the good food at very affordable prices.”
For the dancers, it was their first time performing in front of a large audience on a street in New York.
“It was a very pleasant experience, one that we won’t forget,” said Sylvia.
Rahim said he planned to use every opportunity to promote Malaysia and had drawn up a programme for the whole year.
“It is good that I have a dedicated team because we have to work hard in this competitive tourist market where many countries are vying for a share.
“We have good products to sell and with effort we can make an impact,” he said.
Tourism Malaysia has also supported events that are organised in the name of Asean.
Recently, it was one of the sponsors of the American-Asean Film Festival held in Washington DC.
Malaysia was the only country that had a booth in the foyer of the National Geography theatre with material and souvenirs promoting Malaysia as a tourist destination.
An American visitor at the festival was clearly impressed and told the organisers that they should get more countries to set up booths at the next festival in two years.
Rahim takes little credit for this but is quietly doing what he was sent here to do – promote Malaysia.
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