Malaysia tourism had a turbulent year in 2015. Based on data released by Malaysia Tourism authorities for the period January to September of last year, total foreign arrivals to the country reached only 19.05 million, down by 7.6% over the same period of 2014.
Most worrying is however the trend from the three largest western markets, North America, Europe and the Pacific Rim. They all show double-digit decline. Australia and New Zealand combined arrivals are down by 15.7% from January to September; North America (Canada and USA) is down by 10.8%. Most outbound markets from Western Europe are down except Spain , which is up by 3.9%. In total, Western European markets generated only 778,288 arrivals from January to September, down by 11.8% to the same period of 2014.
Some markets are particularly affected such as Norway or Ireland, down by almost 16%, the Netherlands by 14.5% or Sweden, Denmark and the UK, all down in a range comprised between 12.5% and 11.5%.
What goes wrong with Malaysia tourism? There is a combination of outside factors which depressed the market. Starting with Malaysia Airlines network restructuring which has seen a steep cut down in total capacities to and from Europe. In just a year time, frequencies from MAS to Europe are down from five to six daily flights to three flights a day- London, Paris and Amsterdam: the two latter will in fact be eliminated by February.
Then came the haze problem at the end of the summer and also the negative image that Muslim destinations start to generate in some travellers’ mind. Nothing to do particularly with Malaysia as a tourism destination but it seems obviously to affect partially travel choices from Western visitors who tend to favour other destinations perceived as “safer” or more “tourist friendly”.
Talking to Tourism Malaysia executives at the ASEAN Travel Forum, they talk more about the haze impact to explain the bad performance. “We started to see the first signs of a slowdown due to haze coming from fires in neighbouring Indonesia starting in May”, indicates Tourism Malaysia officials. Another reason to the slowdown according to Malaysia tourism authorities is a travel warning from the USA which came into force over the summer. “It not only deterred travellers from the USA but the travel warning is then endorsed by many other countries”, explains Tourism Malaysia.
Not all agree about the interpretation. A Malaysian Hotelier tells under anonymity request that the religion image is in fact a negative factor for now. “I even asked Malaysian tourism officials to tune down promotion over Islamic tourism for a while as it could further deteriorate the country image in many non Muslim markets”, he tells.
There is very little that Malaysia can do on its own to counter the potentially negative image of Muslim destinations in many countries. Perception can generally be far from the reality but it is often hard to fight and change. Malaysia will need all its resources and talents to look with a distant eye at the issue and find new ways to redefine its image. And win back Western travellers…