Malaysia must play up its image as a culturally diverse and tolerant country to better draw tourists, said an industry player.
Sim Choo Kheng, executive chairman of theme park operator Sim Leisure Group, said Malaysia had initially gained global recognition as “the cultural, racial and religious melting pot of Southeast Asia”, but it had since lost much of this allure.
“This has harmed the country’s image and reputation as an attractive tourist destination,” he told FMT.
Sim said the tourism industry was also hindered by a lack of vision and policy development as well as poor execution of initiatives.
“Tourism has never been given the appropriate prominence and focus required to make Malaysia truly competitive internationally,” he said.
Malaysia reopened its borders to international tourists last April after more than two years battling the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the tourism sector is struggling to reach the pre-pandemic arrival figures.
According to Tourism Malaysia, about three million tourists visited the country last year compared with 21.6 million in 2019.
In comparison, Thailand (10 million visitors), Singapore (4.6 million) and Indonesia (4.58 million) have shown stronger recovery in the past year.
Sim said Thailand and Indonesia had clear tourism strategies that focused on growing the sector through unique selling points as well as better and targeted promotions in the international market.
While Thailand had a reputation for being a liberal destination known for its night entertainment, Malaysia should position itself as a family-friendly destination, he said.
Malaysian Tourist Guides Council president Jimmy Leong said many tourists preferred other destinations over Malaysia because many simple vacation activities, such as alcohol consumption, were tightly regulated here.
He said visitors wanted to enjoy the country and have a memorable experience and not be restricted by tourist-unfriendly regulations.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) chief Tan Kok Liang said the local industry could attract more visitors by increasing its visibility in the international market.
This could be achieved by organising more trade shows and utilising digital marketing and social media, he said.