The soaring steel-and-glass towers of Kuala Lumpur offer a contrast to Malaysia’s idyllic beaches.
Sporting dark sunglasses and a smile of dreamy contentment, Dato’ Sri Azalina Othman Said could have passed for a typical guest at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort. Alas, the entourage of formally dressed advisors sitting at her lunch table made it clear this wasn’t her honeymoon or family vacation. Rather, the Malaysian tourism minister was in Honolulu on business, spending two days meeting with state tourism officials and observing Hawaii’s visitor industry firsthand.
"No one can deny that Hawaii is very successful when it comes to tourism," the minister said, just as a continuous flow of hotel guests walked past the swimming pool adjacent to the restaurant.
This is why Said and her tourism board chose to visit the popular U.S. vacation destination, she explained, even listing Hawaii’s similarities to Malaysia — lush scenery, rich culture and a warm climate.
As the country’s first female minister of tourism — and at age 44, the youngest — Said is on a mission to promote Malaysia as a "fantastic and exotic" destination, particularly to travelers from the North American market. Tourism is the second largest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product. In 2007, Malaysia welcomed close to 21 million visitors, a 19.5 percent increase from 2006. Half of those visitors — 10.5 million — came from neighboring Singapore. Outside of Southeast Asia, most visitors came from China (689,293), India (422,482) and Australia (320,363). From the U.S., Malaysia saw 204,644 visitors.
"We hope to garner a bigger share of the long-haul tourists," the minister said.
One of the deterrents to U.S. travelers, who average an eight- to nine-day stay, is the daunting flight time, on average about 20 hours one-way from Los Angeles. Despite the distance factor, the minister hopes to lure Americans with a two-pronged campaign.
First, she wants people to recognize that Malaysia, where English is widely spoken, has high-end luxury offerings, including designer stores and five-star resorts. Second, she emphasized the country’s "unparalleled eco- and adventure-tourism products." That list includes the tallest peak in Southeast Asia, the longest canopy walk of its kind in Taman Negara state, the world’s oldest rainforest and Sipadan Island, one of the world’s top-rated dive spots. Malaysia is also one of two places in the world where orangutans still naturally reside.
Tourism Malaysia fashioned the slogan "Truly Asia" to sum up what Malaysia represents. When asked to elaborate, Said explained that Malaysia’s diversity represents many parts of Asia — an Asia-in-one destination, so to speak. Because of its central location, Malaysia became home to a large population of ethnic Chinese and Indian people who proudly perpetuate their customs. In fact, some traditions continue to be practiced in Malaysia, even though they are no longer practiced in their country of origin. One example is the Chinese Hokkien custom in which single girls throw tangerines into the sea to find a good spouse.
"In the same town you can find a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple and a mosque," Said continued. "Malaysia is rooted in Southeast Asia, Asia-proper and South Asia through its three biggest populations … In a short visit you get the feel of the rest of Asia coming together in one place."
To allay any worries Western tourists may have about the practice of Islam in Malaysia, the minister stated assuredly, "We have a plethora of different ethnicities and religions living in peace in our country. Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions are practiced freely and openly here alongside Islam."
Among the holidays celebrated in Malaysia are Christmas, Deepavali (the Hindu Festival of Lights) and Wesak Day (Buddha’s birthday).
Historically, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British occupied Malaysia, so European influences add even more to the spirit of Malaysia. While its cultural diversity makes it a standout from the rest of the countries in Southeast Asia, so does its social diversity.
In comparison to some of its better-known neighbors, Said commented, "Thailand has a lot of culture, but poor infrastructure, while Singapore is modern yet lacks the cultural element. Malaysia has the best of both Singapore and Thailand."
"Within our one country, travelers can experience everything from rainforest adventures … to world-class shopping … to secluded resorts or a leisurely game of golf at one of our 200-some courses," she continued.
Indeed, the urban landscape of cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur, with its soaring steel-and-glass towers presents a stark contrast to the quiet seclusion of the idyllic beaches on Langkawi Island.
Another selling point for Malaysia is the lower cost of goods and services. The minister estimated that, in Malaysia, a room at a resort like the Hilton Hawaiian Village would run about $100 a night. Shoppers, she believed, would appreciate the excellent value for their money.
To put an exclamation point on it, she claimed with a grin, "We have the cheapest watches!"
The minister also mentioned that Tourism Malaysia was continuing its efforts to attract convention and exhibition planners. Tapping into the resources of the government and meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions industry partners, Tourism Malaysia’s Meet and Experience Malaysia: Truly Asia campaign can help expedite clearance through customs and immigration, supply giveaway items, present cultural shows and offer promotional assistance. Nonprofit organizations planning to bid for international meetings in Malaysia may also qualify
for financial and informational support.
"Malaysians are very accustomed to diversity and are a warm and friendly people, which we take a great deal of pride in," the minister concluded with an open invitation. "I want to inspire travelers to see Malaysia for themselves."