A couple of months back, I blogged about how the award-winning “Malaysia Truly Asia” brand has been overused for far too long and a new strategy needs to be formulated beyond the typical PR drive. My sentiment was echoed by Ng Kee Seng, a columnist with The Ant Daily, who questioned “Where’s Malaysia’s tourism oomph?” Deriving from Malaysia’s absence in the “Top 10 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Restaurants in the World,” he lamented:

Either the ministry’s promotion strategy is way off the mark or it has done nothing significant to make Malaysia’s presence felt by the global holidaymakers…It will certainly be a suicidal folly for Malaysia’s tourism interest for the ministry to continue with what it has been doing the past decade or more.

The open skies policy in 2015 advocated by the ASEAN Economic Community will further spur growth in the travel sector and competition among South East Asian nations for tourists will be fierce. With this in mind, here are five simple yet significant suggestions to enhance Malaysia’s tourism industry in the future global tourism map.

1.  Shift Away From Marketing Malaysia As A “Shopping Haven”

No. 4 in CNN’s “World’s 12 Best Shopping Cities,” RM19.8 billion spent by foreign tourists making up 30.7% of total tourist expenditure in 2013 and over 100 malls throughout the Klang Valley – these are indisputable facts that shopping is a big ticket item for the tourism industry. The immense contribution of retail to the nation’s coffers is duly lauded but the over reliance on this “golden child” is done at the expense of other aspects of tourism.

Through my travels in Malaysia, I saw many tourism spots in the state of neglect and disrepair especially the perennially underfunded museums with half-baked exhibits and poorly designed facades. I think it’s high time for the government to reduce spending on promoting Malaysia as a top shopping destination (which we already are) and let the retail giants take the lead, while the potential to develop semi-urban and rural tourism destinations is still there for the taking.

Shopping is Malaysia’s big ticket item for our tourism (Photo courtesy of Shopping In Focus).

2. Enhance Integrated Connectivity

Traveling in Malaysia is getting exciting as low-cost airlines are expanding to secondary airports while the intercity rail network upgrade is nearing its completion. Aside from that, one area which I find to be severely lacking is the connectivity from a city to its surrounding areas. Currently, it is costly to travel around towns like Taiping or Kota Bharu as they are not foot-friendly and the public transport system non-existent. In most cases, the only options are hiring a car or joining a tour if you are interested to explore the mangrove forest of Kuala Sepetang or the Buddhist-Siamese temples in Tumpat.

This could be an opportunity for ride-share services like Uber or home-grown MyTeksi to team up with taxi operators in these towns. The fare can be accurately quantified rather than estimated on a zonal basis and customers can pre-book their ride by determining their length of usage so all resources can be optimally utilized. These tech companies can instil driver loyalty by rewarding exceptional behavior and provide much needed English language training. Empowering these cab drivers to be the unofficial tourism ambassadors would be the perfect method to make a less well-known destination be the “next big thing.”

It’s quite a challenge to traverse Kota Bharu and its surrounding towns without driving a car (Photo courtesy of The Kelantan Times).

3. Reward Community Involvement

The participation of taxi operators in towns and rural areas leads me to my next point – the need to get an active involvement from the local community. I was quite disheartened when I visited the Seri Menanti Royal Museum, deep in the Negeri Sembilan hinterland, to find out that the exhibits and information on display were poorly maintained while the attendant was not able to act as a guide and answer our questions on the lineage of the Negeri Sembilan royalty or how the replica palace was built without using a single nail.

I guess it’s a tad unfair to compare it with the standards I experienced in the USA but efforts should be made even if it is done step wise. It can be done via partnerships with universities where college students studying in a related field could intern as tour guides and train locals to be one as well. I’m sure the local community has plenty of tales to regale and it would be a good opportunity to document their stories so it could be passed on to the younger generation. Again, the emphasis is on people as they are the ones who provide the spark to a traveler to fall in love with their place.

Grand palaces like this needs a storyteller to turn mundane into magical (Photo courtesy of Nada Afiqah).

4. Increase The Length of a Traveler’s Stay

This goes into the realm of data and statistics but the length of a traveler’s stay at a certain place can be a good indicator of how popular that place is. You would experience this when asking someone how long you should spend your time at a destination and by that logic, the longer the stay the more you would spend there. Islands and major cities would get 3 – 5 days while lesser destinations would garner 1 – 2 days. A proper survey and analysis could classify each location based on the length of stay and the factors determining it.

The information derived from this sort of study could help industry experts and policy makers make better decisions in providing funds to places in the mid to lower rung of the ladder. For example, the royal town of Pekan is perfect for a day trip but the addition of a 100-room hotel and a newly-upgraded museum complex could bump it up the ladder to a 1 – 2 days category. I’m channeling my inner Nate Silver on this as I strongly believe number crunching beyond the usual economic statistics could help improve our resource allocation to develop future tourism destinations.

How long would you stay at a given destination? (Photo courtesy of Life In Digital Colour)

5. A Sustainable Tourism Culture

The last piece of this jigsaw puzzle is a marriage between environmental conservation and sustainable tourism. One of the many challenges faced by developing nations is the need to balance economic growth with resource preservation and sadly, Malaysia is not doing too well in the latter. Our scant disregard for the environment has led to tragedies like the Cameron Highlands flood disasters in Pahang while uncharted areas like the ecologically important Setiu Wetlands (where Terrapuri calls home) are at risk of being exploited if nothing is being done to protect them.

A sustainable tourism culture can be nurtured through continuous involvement by all parties – the government has the power to gazette these habitats, the NGOs have the expertise in capacity building and the local community has the emotional investment to partake in the tourism activities. However, sustainability also encompasses profitability so any conservation masterplan needs to address the business side of things before translating them into action or it’ll be back to square one when the money runs out. Advocating a sustainable agenda is an uphill task but the benefits of any preservation efforts will be reaped by generations in the years to come.

Sustainable tourism is not only vital to the habitat but also the people living off it.

There you have it: my five key recommendations for the future of Malaysia’s tourism industry. The key takeaway here is to never stick to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra plaguing our decision makers because the current trends and interests of the global traveler move so fast year by year. Any given advantage would turn a once nondescript place into the next big thing (I’m looking at you, Lombok) so if we play our cards rights, we could one day see Muar being in the top 10 of a travel guide’s go-to list.

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