Monday, May 14, 2007

Wanted: Tourist from the Middle-East as they spend 3 times more

Wanted: Tourist arrivals from the Middle-East. They are said to spend three times more than other foreign tourists and their healthy spending habits are beefing up our tourism coffers. Sunday Star looks at what draws them here and how they rate as visitors to this country.

FOR newly-wed Saudi Arabian couple Mohammed Al-Mamrani and Layla, Malaysia is the perfect destination for their honeymoon.

“It is because of the culture you have here,” Al-Mamrani says. “I have been in Malaysia before and I like the country very much.”

He tells us why Malaysia is such a draw. “Everything here fits us – the culture, the food, prices are good, but mostly the people – everyone is friendly and very helpful.”

Al-Mamrani is but one of the many tourists from Middle Eastern (ME) countries that are coming to Malaysia to spend their holidays. And as statistics show, ME tourists arrivals are increasing yearly (see chart). Tellingly, in 2006, tourist numbers from Jordan and Saudi Arabia increased in excess of 25% compared to 2005.

Taste for shopping: For Middle Eastern tourists, shopping is an essential aspect of a holiday in Malaysia.
With higher tourist arrivals to Malaysia, there has been more vocal feedback from ME travel agents who cite taxi drivers and traders that overcharge, stinking cabs and poor knowledge by front liners as problems. Such feedback incensed Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor at the end of his 18-day tour of West Asian countries to promote Visit Malaysia 2007 earlier last week.

The minister reiterated how valuable this group of tourists was to the country and the tourism industry by virtue of their spending power – they spend three times more money than other visitors to the country. Arab tourists, who make up the largest arrivals after those from Asia and Europe, spend an average of seven days in Malaysia, with each family spending about RM1,000 a day.

The fact that Malaysia has many charms is well known, but what does the country have that makes it so attractive to ME tourists in particular?

A. Najib Arriffin, a freelance tourism consultant says, “It is hard to generalise a typical ME tourist, as they do differ from country to country, but there are common traits. There are broad social and cultural traits that do make up the ME tourist but the biggest role has to do with religion, and the underlying trait is that they practise Islam.”

Mohd Kamarul Yusof, a private tour operator, explains, “As Malaysia is a Muslim country, they feel more comfortable here. Additionally, English is widely spoken, so they are able to communicate with locals. Otherwise, Malaysia appeals to them as a destination for the same reasons it would for anybody from the rest of the world.”

Shahad Hussien, 22, from Iraq and Nuray Yildie, 31, from Turkey, acknowledge the significance of the religious factor when choosing Malaysia as a destination. Says Nuray, “We can go almost anywhere and eat anything we want. Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, it is a different experience for us – you can find different kinds of religions here.”

Big spenders: Chan welcomes Middle Eastern tourists as they are willing to spend money. Right: Nuray (left) and Shahad like Malaysia very much, but have an issue with local taxi drivers.
Najib adds: “The overall Islamic ambience plays a big part. The places they go for food will be halal, and they can perform prayers anytime at a mosque or surau. We are a relaxed and tolerant Muslim country, and some have said they like the way Islam is practised in Malaysia. As a practical example, Muslim ladies here have a free choice – no one is forced to wear a tudung.”

On the surface, it appears that Malaysia truly is the tourist heaven that it is touted to be – or is it?

Nuray’s time here has not been all that rosy.

“When I want to go somewhere by taxi, the driver will use a longer route. From experience, I know that a (particular) route will cost RM10 by the meter, but they ask for RM50! Maybe because of the way I look, they always try to get more money from me.”

Mohd Kamarul shares some of his customers’ grouses.

“As tour operators, we are always the first people they complain to. I have heard stories of how they were cheated, and yes, taxi drivers are somewhere at the top of the list, and of course, there are always complaints about our public toilets!”

Much displeasure has been shown towards taxi drivers, but there may be a logical reason for the discrepancy in fares, even for identical routes.

Explains taxi driver Arjunan a/l Suprayan, 28, from Kepong: “It's very simple – it's the traffic jams. For example, if the roads are clear, a trip may cost RM15, but it can go up to RM30 if the jam is bad! Some don’t realise that the meter runs even when the taxi is stuck in traffic, and when they see the difference in fares they think that we are cheating them.”

While there is an apparent problem regarding dishonest taxi drivers, some ME tourists do wise up to their tricks – but it sometimes works against them. Radakrishnan, 45, a taxi driver who hails from Rawang relates: “This person got in and said that he would pay only RM10 for the trip because that was how much he had paid previously. I told him that if we went by the meter it would only be around RM5, but he did not want to listen and insisted on paying RM10!”

Radakrishnan says that given a choice, he would rather not have a ME passenger. “They can be a bit difficult. For example, two ME men once got on board and wanted to smoke. I told them that they were not allowed to, and I could be fined by the police if they did. They refused to follow and said they would pay the fine if the police stopped the taxi.”

Mohd Kamarul believes that ME tourists are merely misunderstood, and understands why they may be considered difficult.

“Their culture is different from ours, and then there is the language problem. Most can speak English, but only a few of them are good at it. As for Bahasa Malaysia, what they know is what they learn here – basic phrases like terima kasih, and maybe satu, dua, tiga.

“I don't think they are any different from you or me – if you were to go to Saudi Arabia and couldn't speak any Arabic, the locals would probably think the same about you.”

Najib observes that there has been a change in the attitude of today’s ME tourists. “The tourist of old was less experienced and therefore more demanding. But in recent years, they have become more travel savvy. They know what to expect from Malaysia and are better prepared.

”This is especially so when they join tour groups – there were complaints from other tourists before, that they do not have very good sense of time. But in the last one or two years, they have realised that international tourism requires punctuality.”

Taxi driver Lee C.H. says that dealing with ME tourists isn’t difficult – and it has its rewards.

“Provided you treat them well, they will appreciate it. If you were to take them around town to fulfil their agenda, shopping for example, you will be guaranteed a good tip.”

One of the must-do items on their itinerary is shopping, a fact that Allan Chan of local fashion label Salabianca can attest to.

“They are always willing to spend. They can buy a few thousand dollars of my garments – pieces with embroidery or beadings for example, which will cost many times the price back in their own country. So for them it is a bargain.”

He describes one of his best customers ever at his KLCC store.

“This ME man came in with a walking stick, and he used it to flip though the merchandise on the racks. I thought him rather rude at the time, but then he turned to me and said he would be back.

“True enough, one week later he was back and purchased RM15,000 worth of goods!”

Mohd Kamarul agrees and says, “Generally, those that come here are quite willing to spend money. They usually go for the famous brands and do not mind paying top dollar for them – and they go all out when shopping. According to them, due to the exchange rate, things are cheaper for them here.”

Besides shopping, Najib says that they like to have a good bit of family fun.

“Those with children enjoy theme parks. Places like Genting Highlands and Sunway Lagoon are a ‘must-see’ for them. I was told that there is a tendency for ME women to go into the pools there with their children in full black garb, and lifeguards having to tell them that they cannot do that.”

Najib has observed a difference between ME tourists and those from the West when it comes to appreciating Malaysian culture. Westerners are genuinely interested in immersing themselves in local culture – be it food, customs or rituals. ME tourists, however, appreciate it ‘by the way’. He explains that they would acknowledge it but would not actively involve themselves in it.

He concludes, “I believe more should be done to entice ME tourists to enjoy and understand local Malaysian culture. We should do more to entice them to visit cultural theme parks and to try our local food – nasi lemak and curry mee, for example. We need to intensify our efforts in this regard.”

Source : STAR
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