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4 Aug, 2008

Malaysia Seeks Larger Share of Islamic Travel Market

KUALA LUMPUR — Although its branding tag-line presents itself as “Truly Asia,” Malaysia is seeking to build on its Islamic credentials to capture a dominant share of the Islamic market.

Presenting a marketing blueprint to an Islamic tourism conference here last week, Tourism Malaysia Director General Mirza Mohammad Taib noted that Malaysia is the second largest Islamic country in terms of visitor arrivals.

Turkey leads with a total of 22.2 million arrivals in 2007, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation, with Malaysia coming in second with 21 million.

Research by Tourism Malaysia indicated that although Muslim-majority countries like Indonesia, Brunei and the Gulf countries were natural targets in terms of marketing efforts, Malaysia could also attract the millions of visitors from countries where Muslims comprise substantial minorities, such as Singapore, India, the Philippines, Australia and the United Kingdom.

At the same time, significant marketing efforts are being concentrated in countries of North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco) as well as the Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan).

In each of these potential source markets, Tourism Malaysia has carried out extensive research to identify customer segments and the kind of marketing messages that will be necessary to attract them to specific niche and special-interest products.

For example, upper income people senior citizens and incentive groups are seen as being of potential in Central Asia, while in North Africa, it would include the same segments plus students and honeymooners.

Malaysia is attracting many university students from the Arabic-speaking countries who find the quality of education, cost of living and the local culture to be well suited to their budgets and needs.

Mr. Taib said that as Malaysian Airlines itself did not have any flights into these countries, Tourism Malaysia had found more than willing partners in the airlines of the Gulf countries such as Emirates, Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and Etihad, which have strong and growing linkages with Kuala Lumpur.

Mr. Taib said a lot still needed to be done to grow intra-Islamic travel, such as by relaxing visa restrictions, overcoming rigid monetary controls in the Central Asian and North African countries, and upgrading the quality of services, especially by front-line providers like taxi-drivers, hotel staff and guides.

He said Tourism Malaysia, too, had to be careful of differentiated cultural issues in the Islamic world itself. For example, in some countries, local advertising regulations do not allow women and dances to be shown in the TV spots. However, that has been sidestepped by usage of satellite TV which is available nearly everywhere.

Some industry leaders are warning Tourism Malaysia against putting too many eggs into the Islamic basket. They point out, for example, that it is a very seasonal market with very pronounced peaks and troughs, and experiences a significant downturn in the fasting month of Ramadan.

Due to the Islamic lunar calendar, the month of Ramadan moves forward by 10 days every year and is increasingly heading into the summer. This year, Ramadan will fall largely in September but in a few years, it will be in June-July.

Conference delegates also warned about assuming too sweepingly that Muslims seek out halal food and prayer facilities. “Many of them want to hit the nightlife, the bars and the casino, just like anybody else,” said one professor from the Faculty of Hotel & Tourism Management, University of Technology MARA.

At the same time, many Islamic countries are also trying to get a piece of the outbound Muslims from Malaysia itself.

A tourism delegation from Uzbekistan made an interesting presentation but ran into some critical comments from Malaysian travel agents, one of whom said that while the streets of Tashkent were a “living museum” of Silk Road monuments and culture, procuring visas was a major hassle and the conditions at Tashkent airport left much to be desired.

Malaysia chairs the Tourism Sub-committee of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference countries (a grouping in which Thailand has observer status) and has been trying for several years to get approval to host a full-time tourism secretariat.

However, that has run into years of bureaucratic problems “about which I could give an entirely separate presentation,” Mr. Taib said.

To get around the need for formal governmental approval, a number of private companies are stepping forward to set up their own Islamic tourism secretariats. Two groups are already vying for the mantle, one of which organised last week’s Islamic tourism conference, and another is to follow suit in October.

Islamic tourism ministers also held their bi-annual conference in Damascus in July during which they agreed on a series of strategies and measures to promote tourism amongst their 1.2 billion people.

One of the decisions was to set up a tourism website for Islamic countries to provide “complete tourist information” about the countries and private companies and make that the first point of call for potential leisure travellers, investors and MICE event organisers.

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