Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Tourism Challenge by Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman

MALAYSIA is a relatively new player in the field of tourism. The upgrading of promotional activities started only when the Tourism and Culture Ministry was established in 1987.

At that time, the country was little known to the rest of the world. Those responsible had not only to deal with the task of creating awareness but also with the fact that the country had to compete against several more mature markets in the region.

The tourism industry has undergone rapid development over the past decade. The industry has grown from strength to strength to become a leading revenue generator as well as a significant contributor to the nation’s economic growth.

Recognising this, the government has placed great emphasis on tourism product development by continuously upgrading the infrastructure, the quality of existing products as well as developing new tourism products that can capture a bigger share of the world tourism market.

At the same time, I hope more and more of our people and the frontliners will continue to provide value-added services to tourists. I also hope more emphasis will be given to inculcate the spirit of “Think Tourism” among our industry players and those in the hospitality sector.

The government, under the 10th Malaysia Plan, is targeting to improve Malaysia’s position to be within the top 10 in terms of global tourism receipts by 2015. According to the Minister of Tourism, the ministry would focus on attracting a larger share of high-end travellers capturing a bigger share of high-growth segments and increasing the number of tourist arrivals, in order to achieve the 2015 target.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges ahead that have to be resolved. One of the major ones is the fragile global economic recovery. Government budget allocations for the purpose of promoting tourism is not unlimited. So, it is vital that the right priorities be exercised.

It is equally important to ensure the maximisation of positive results in promotional expenditure. Those involved in the industry have questioned the wisdom of some of the high-cost domestic promotion activities. They argued that the expenditure could have been better utilised in promotional events in the relevant foreign markets. They have also commented that some of the activities carried out in the country were not within the scope of the tourism authorities.

For instance, critics have been wondering about the accommodation for our visitors. Last year, 23.6 million tourists visited the country and there are only 2,373 hotels and 168,844 rooms nationwide. That raises the question, “Where do the rest of the tourists stay?”

Clearly, not all are accommodated in the hotels and resorts. While certain tourists prefer home stays, others could have taken up service apartments, holiday homes, and such.

On that note, there should be a way to keep tabs and traceable records or a complete database of where the rest of these tourists are staying.

In another scenario, the long list of annual sporting events that are highlighted under sports tourism raises many doubts as to the relevance and its return on investments. For instance, is the Le Tour de Langkawi or the F1 race at the Sepang International Circuit contributing to the national economy?

Looking at the trends, it seems that even after a decade had passed, these sporting events are still dependant on generous handouts and financial sponsorships from the various government agencies and government-linked corporations.

Ironically, if such events claim to be sustainable enough, then they should not be dependent on others for financial aid. Otherwise, the ethical move is to have these events dropped altogether.

Similar trends or practices are also observed with the yachting and sailing events where financial sponsorship from government agencies and the public are sought, year after year.

Likewise, other sporting activities like golfing should be given similar consideration. Apparently, the golfing industry in the country should not be too dependent on foreign labour (caddies, staffing, etc).

While we welcome every effort to promote Malaysia through the various activities and events, many find it rather confusing when these events transgressed other boundaries.

For instance, the Colours of Malaysia, the Pesta Air and the Chelsea Flower Show all should have been organised and promoted by the former Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage and the present Ministry of Agriculture, Horticulture and Agrotourism, respectively.

The Colours of Malaysia has always been a cultural representation of the country’s rich multi-racial communities through songs, dances and cuisine. This celebration is also to highlight the various cultural differences of the 13 States in Malaysia.

But the irony is, “Since it is a cultural event, wouldn’t it be appropriate if it were to be placed under the purview of the former Ministry of Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage? Reason being, such a ministry was well-positioned as the proper custodian or gatekeeper to promote the various cultures of Malaysia.

Furthermore, the venue for the Colours of Malaysia has always been an issue. Sometimes, it is staged in a stadium and sometimes it is portrayed as a street parade spanning from Dataran Merdeka to Jalan Raja Laut and Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. The decision changes each time Malaysia receives a new tourism minister.

The changing of venues must indeed incur heavy costs. Quite frankly, one does not have to look far to realise that staging the Colours of Malaysia as a street parade could easily incur higher costs than hosting the same event in a stadium. One wonders just how much of this cost really goes down to the infrastructure, props or the site preparation (no such costs are required if it is staged in a stadium).

Of late, the Tourism Ministry has been subscribing to the practice of scrapping good events and replacing it with other “unrelated” ones without any proper study or market feedback.

One really wonders, “Whatever happened to the Pesta Air Malaysa?” Instead, we find ourselves promoting a new product. The Chelsea Flower Show has raised a few eyebrows in the industry. Some critics are asking ”Why are we into it?”

No doubt Malaysia managed to secure a gold medal in the recent Chelsea Flower Show after spending RM2 million for the sophisticated landscaping and floral arrangements by an ethnobotanist, James Wong. But what the ministry failed to realise is that Malaysia’s recent participation has raised a high level of expectancy on our parks and gardens.

Having said that, now everyone knows that you can never get a similar garden like the ones showcased at the Chelsea Flower Show in any of the parks in Kuala Lumpur. Just visualise tourists bound for Malaysia, who are now expecting to catch at least a “similar” garden and park in the open spaces of Kuala Lumpur and your guess is as good as mine… they will be disappointed!

There are indeed many tourism issues that I would like to highlight. Tourism products are deteriorating — you cannot swim in the sea off Port Dickson, Penang, Cherating and Malacca, and corals are dying off Tioman Island, Redang Island and Paya Island off Langkawi.

Pollution is a big problem. We also have to limit the number of visitors to fragile areas. We cannot have a thousand visitors visiting Paya Island when the carrying capacity is only, say, 300 visitors a day. Thus, the pollution will kill the corals and reduce the fish population there.

There is also lack of enforcement and maintenance in these areas. Sewage, grey water, household and restaurant waste are being discharged into drains polluting the water. Most of our rivers are getting more and more polluted due to no laws to reduce and control household discharge into drains and rivers.

Two beautiful nature sites — Lake Chini and Taman Negara — have been spoilt by over-development. Lake Chini was damaged by building a dam to raise the water level to make it easier for boats to access and by killing most of the trees surrounding the lake and until today, the place has not recovered and no one takes responsibility.

Taman Negara gives a bad taste to visitors as floating restaurants discharge their waste straight into the pristine river and illegal hotels and guest houses discharge poorly-treated sewage into the river. There is no proper control of development and pollution.

Tourists do have a bad image of Malaysia when more and more cases of snatch thefts are happening in places like Penang, Johor Baru, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. Even poorer countries like Myanmar and Cambodia do not have such problems.

As is widely known, the tourism industry is the second-largest foreign exchange earner to the country. So, the stakeholders have to continue to strive hard to ensure that the industry remains sustainable.

• TAN Sri Abdul Aziz Abdul Rahman is currently a practicing advocate and solicitor. He was previously the chief executive officer of Malaysia Airlines for 20 years. Prior to this, he was the judicial and legal officer in the government for 10 years.

Source :The Malay Mail Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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