A tourism leader in the region, Malaysia has seen its position challenged in recent years as nearby rivals have stepped up efforts to attract more visitors.
Official statistics show that just over 25m visitors arrived in 2012, a rise of around 300,000 compared to the prior year. Despite this increase, Malaysia saw its ranking fall on the 2012 UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) list of most-visited countries, published in August. The country dropped one place on the UNWTO ladder to 10th, being overtaken by Russia.
The sector nonetheless remains a major source of foreign currency earnings, second only to the manufacturing industry, as well as the seventh-largest overall contributor to the national economy. The 2013 World Travel and Tourism Council report noted that tourism employs 1.7m people, or 13.6% of all jobs, when taking into account positions indirectly supported by the industry.
While the 1.3% increase in the number of visitors was a modest improvement on the 0.6% rise recorded in 2011, growth in the market has been slow in comparison to Malaysia’s neighbours. Thailand saw arrivals go up 16% last year, and fast-movers Cambodia and Vietnam posted increases of 24% and 14%, respectively, though both are coming off a far lower base.
In terms of arrivals, Malaysia remains number one in the South-east Asian region, but it faces challenges when it comes to capitalising on arrivals volume. Though it attracted just over half as many visitors, Singapore generated similar revenue from its tourism sector, while Thailand received almost 3m fewer visitors than Malaysia in 2012, but earned 50% more from them, according to UNWTO data.
This suggests that Malaysia needs to do more to encourage greater spending by tourists. The country may also need to look further afield when expanding its client base, with around 75% of all arrivals coming from neighbouring states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines, with Singaporeans making up well over one-third of all arrivals.
One of Malaysia’s appeals as a tourism destination for fellow members of the ASEAN bloc is its proximity, Tan Kok Liang, a vice-president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, told the local press on August 6. By not having to endure long-haul flights, ASEAN visitors can easily take short breaks in Malaysia, he said. However, Tan also acknowledged that the predominance of tourists from nearby countries also has a downside.
“Because many of these are still developing countries, tourists’ purchasing power will be lower than those from developed countries,” he said.
One answer to the comparatively low per-capita earnings power of the Malaysian tourism industry is to develop high-spending niche markets. On August 15, Prime Minister Najib Razak told delegates attending an international insurance congress in Kuala Lumpur that such events would become increasingly important for the tourism industry. Najib said inbound business tourist numbers are set to rise from the present level of 1.2m to 2.9m by 2020, with the government’s Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau aiming to have the country recognised as a leading business destination.
Other niche segments that have been targeted under the government’s development programme are medical, spa and wellness tourism, as well as shopping and duty free sales, though regional rivals are also offering similar projects, potentially narrowing the scope for Malaysia to fully capitalise on these markets.
Despite strong government support and a solid improvement in arrivals this year – inbound tourists numbered 6.5m for the first quarter of 2013, compared to 5.5m for the same three months last year – it may be difficult to achieve some of the goals set by the state, which has identified the sector as one of its 12 National Key Economic Areas. Tourism Malaysia, the agency tasked with promoting the country as a travel destination, has targeted 26.8m inbound visitors this year and 28m in 2014, rising to 36m by 2020.
In the shorter term, the slowing of the economy in China – the third-largest source market for Malaysia – could have a negative impact on the sector, both in terms of a reduction in the number of Chinese visitors as well as any knock-on effects on regional economies. Further down the track, the increased competition posed by other south-east Asian nations could also cut into Malaysia’s tourism growth unless it is able to broaden its appeal.