As the first of 250 events and festivals that will be taking place across the country throughout 2007, Malaysia launched its 'Visit Malaysia Year 2007' (VMY 2007) last week in Kuala Lumpur.
The VMY 2007 campaign, which coincides with the country's 50th year of independence hopes to attract 20m tourists to the country and earn RM44.5bn ($12.36bn) worth of receipts. The campaign aims to raise the country's profile as a destination and create an environment of sustained tourist growth for the future. According to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 17m tourists visited Malaysia in 2006 and spent more than RM37bn ($10.5bn).
In addition to high profile events, the government has called on Malaysians to help make the programme a success by welcoming and treating tourists in a friendly manner, and urged citizens to promote the country to others. Other initiatives have included closer monitoring of taxi drivers and fares, and investment in cleaning and beautifying public spaces and facilities.
Tourist arrivals in Malaysia have steadily increased in recent years on the back of increasing promotion that has increased Malaysia's visibility as a travel destination. The campaign "Malaysia, Truly Asia" - created to showcase Malaysia's racial and religious diversity - has become highly recognisable.
Presentation is particularly important for Malaysia, which occasionally finds itself the subject of bad press. An industry insider told OBG, "there are wrong messages getting to the market about the influences in the country that may be hostile to tourism and contradict the experience one actually gets in Malaysia."
Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor is confident that such news is quickly dispelled upon arriving in Malaysia, telling OBG that "As a Muslim country, some people have misconceptions about us, but once they are in Malaysia they realise quickly that we are a very liberal Muslim country."
Some within the tourism industry, however, are less concerned about the message, and more concerned with the level of support. One hotel manager said, "What matters is how much extra spending goes into such campaigns and I think on that score Visit Malaysia 2007 is on target."
Indeed, increased government spending for tourism overall is an important aspect of the five-year Ninth Malaysia Plan (9MP). Of the RM1.8bn ($514 m) allocated for tourism, over half will be used for upgrading infrastructure. The plan targets 24.6m foreign tourist arrivals for 2010 with RM59.4bn ($16.5bn) in revenue. To do this, the country also plans to focus on niche areas such as eco-tourism, leveraging on Malaysia's dense forests and natural assets, and health tourism, given the country's relatively low rates for treatment and sophisticated health care infrastructure.
Such niches are important avenues for Malaysia to distinguish itself within a competitive region. Martin Jones, the general manager of the Westin Kuala Lumpur applauds the government for highlighting the capital and the country's culture and not just the beach resorts.
Another Kuala Lumpur hotel manager told OBG, "I think that [Malaysia's] location is a bit problematic because the competition for the long haul markets in the region is ferocious. Key European markets have been die-hard Thailand fans all these years." He continued, "Malaysia has to put an edge on their message, and then ramp up core features: the shopping, the value for money, the safety security issue."
Though the fruits of these long term efforts remain to be seen, most agree that VMY 2007 will likely meet its targets, benefiting sectors beyond the travel and tourism sector - particularly retail. According to the Malaysian Retailers' Association, receipts from shopping last year accounted for one quarter of total tourist spending.