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29 Oct, 2003

Indian Agents Convene in Malaysia As Rush Builds for Indian Market

KUALA LUMPUR: The mass rush to attract Indian tourists to Southeast Asia has become more competitive with the convening of a landmark annual congress by the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI) in Kuala Lumpur last week.

About 1,100 TAAI member delegates turned up for the historic congress, TAAI’s first outside South Asia since 1983. It was a particular triumph for Malaysian tourism authorities who, trailing in the race to tap the rapidly-growing Indian market, had worked since 1999 to woo the association.

With 183,360 arrivals from India in 2002, Malaysia is behind Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, but last year enjoyed a much faster growth rate. With airline capacity between India and Malaysia set to grow by 50 % in the upcoming winter schedule, Tourism Malaysia is targetting 400,000 Indian visitors in 2004.

The Malaysians pulled out all stops to ensure that the Indian delegates, not always the easiest to please, went away satisfied. Heavily discounted rooms at the Genting Highlands included both breakfast and transfers from KL International Airport, a two-hour drive.

Malaysian Airlines gave equally heavily discounted air-fares, which helped pull in a huge throng of accompanying delegates, especially children curious to see the KL Twin Towers, an icon made famous by umpteen Bollywood movies featuring it as background for song-and-dance sequences.

Penang made a huge marketing impact, spending nearly 175,000 ringgit (about 1.84 million baht) on a lavish dinner and accompanying promotions. It also roped in the entire TAAI executive committee for a post-conference tour and earned itself a speaking slot on the main conference programme. The next step is to push for direct flights from Indian cities, according to the state’s tourism chief, Dato Madam Khee Phaik Cheen.

TAAI President Jehangir Katgara expressed hope that the TAAI congress could be expanded in future to include contacts between the ASEAN and South Asian travel industry associations.

He called on the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) to reciprocate and hold an annual congress in India. MATTA President Tunku Iskandar said the association would do so eventually, but first hold a number of smaller meetings with the Indians as a prelude to a wider congress.

India is now on Malaysia’s list of top 10 priority markets. Since 2000, Malaysia has spent an average of US$ 2.5 million a year in advertising, operations and below-the-line marketing in India.

In 2004, about the same expenditure is planned except that with the groundwork having been done in India, the campaigns will assume a more tactical mode while the groundwork-laying marketing will shift to other South Asian countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Tourism Malaysia has self-staffed offices in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi and a media rep in Bangalore. A permanent office is planned for Calcutta next year after Malaysian Airlines starts flying there.

A major problem is visas which Indians are still required to have for every destination in Asia except Hong Kong, Laos and Cambodia. Thailand and Vietnam grant visas on arrival, which gives them an advantage over both Malaysia and Singapore.

However, Malaysian Immigration is looking at hiring private companies to help with compilation of documents, fee collection, etc. This will facilitate visa issuance in different parts of India, avoid the hassle of sending applications to the main cities and increase the number of visas issued daily.

Another issue being sorted out with Malaysian Immigration is facilitation of Indian visitors from the border with Singapore. The Malaysian port of Johor is only across the causeway from Singapore and Tourism Malaysia officials say if that could be opened up to some kind of transit-visa facility, it would allow Malaysia to pull in the Indian visitors to Singapore.

Southeast Asian NTOs are clearly excited about nurturing the shift in the outbound Indian market away from North America and Europe towards Asia and Australia.

The flight situation, once seen as the primary bottleneck, is now no longer so. Malaysian Airlines and Air India are planning a huge increase in capacity as of October in the form of code-share flights. THAI Airways will be adding its fourth Indian city, Chennai, next month.

Singapore Airlines operates 26 flights a week to five Indian cities, and its subsidiary SilkAir another 11 to Kochi, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram.

Thailand was represented at the TAAI congress by the TAT office in Delhi and Mr Kulwat Bhatia, Managing Director of Oriental Travels in Bangkok.

Mr Bhatia praised the TAT for its marketing efforts and noted that the visa-on-arrival facility gave Thailand a distinct advantage in attracting Indian visitors.

However, he said as the overall numbers grow, the market is becoming more competitive by the day as Indian operators squeeze their local handling agents, “just like the rush to attract tourists from China, Russia, Vietnam and other such fast growing markets.”

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