Dato' Seri Azalina Othman Said
Dato’ Seri Azalina Othman Said, the new minister of Tourism Malaysia, recognizes that since Malaysia is a long-haul destination for Americans, it can be tough to attract visitors, but she says, “We are a wonderful soft landing to the Southeast Asian region for U.S. travelers, as we have great infrastructure, diverse product offerings, terrific value for money and English is widely spoken.”
Last year, Malaysia received 204,644 visitors from the U.S., an increase of 17.5 percent from the previous year. Those figures are significant, but they make up a fraction of the total for 2007, when Malaysia saw 20.9 million visitor arrivals. While the UK and Australia figure in the top 10 markets for Malaysia, the U.S. ranks 13th, signaling that a fresh marketing approach to the States is in order.
Said thinks that Tourism Malaysia needs to expand its marketing efforts via the web, instead of concentrating so heavily on print and TV. “I also plan to strengthen our efforts in North America by creating more engaging events in some of our major cities,” says Said. “In 2008, in conjunction with Pempena’s Malaysia Kitchen, we hosted the Taste of Malaysia food promotions in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver, B.C., which were received with favorable reviews.”
Said’s most recent role was as Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister. She studied law at the University of Malaya, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Before getting involved in politics, she was the host of several TV talk shows that focused on politics and social issues.
Said concedes that because of Malaysia’s status as a Muslim country, Americans might have some misconceptions. “However, Malaysia is a very moderate Muslim country with friendly and accepting people,” says Said. “We have a long-standing history of peaceful co-existence in our country, between different ethnicities, cultures and religions.” Said notes that in Malaysia, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions are practiced freely and openly alongside Islam. “When people hear ‘Malaysia,’ we want them to think of our rich multicultural heritage and our diverse product offerings,” says Said. Said suggests that Americans also look at the high numbers of visitors from Australia and the UK. “Americans should be reassured by the fact that we’re seeing so much success with those countries,” she says.
Under Said’s direction, look for Malaysia to focus on the MICE (Meetings Incentives Conventions Exhibitions) market, ecotourism, wellness tourism and to develop multi-country travel. “I see our greatest opportunities in combining with Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam,” says Said.
Said draws attention to a lesser-known destination in Malaysia deserving of attention. “Langkawi Island, one of our relaxing beachfront destinations, offers luxuries like the Four Seasons, the Datai and the Andaman resorts,” she says. “Langkawi is still very much under the radar for most travelers, but those who go find its charm to be similar to that of Bali, without the heavy foot traffic.” The states of Terengganu, Kedah and Kelantan will also be in the spotlight this year.
Going forward, Tourism Malaysia will continue to work with the 1,500-plus Malaysia specialist travel agents trained in selling the location. “We plan to build additional incentive programs and provide them with information to better sell our destination,” says Said. “We also send a number of travel agents overseas on our various fam trips...throughout the year.”
Even though rising fuel prices are impacting the price of flight tickets, Said sees a silver lining for Malaysia. She feels that American economic woes and a falling dollar will not deter travelers—although they’ll be looking for destinations where they’ll get their money’s worth. “Malaysia maintains a favorable exchange rate to the American dollar,” says Said. “While four- and five-star hotels in other destinations may cost upwards of $400 to $500 or more, travelers can enjoy luxurious service at top-of-the-line hotels for $100 to $200 a night, even during peak travel season,” she says.
“While Thailand and Vietnam are becoming more expensive, Malaysia still offers good value,” notes Edwin Choy, general manager of GTS Globotours. Over the last four or five years, GTS Globotours has seen a steady increase in travel to Malaysia. “I attribute this to Tourism Malaysia being more aggressive in promoting the country,” Choy says. “I’m seeing Malaysia featured in TV commercials and magazines much more than before.” Most of GTS Globotours’ clients are traveling to Malaysia to experience its culture and ecotourism, gravitating toward the Sarawak region, especially Borneo and Kuching.