Two airplane catastrophes put Malaysia on the map in a bad way in 2014. But they didn’t hurt the country’s tourism, and the higher visibility may even have helped: visitor numbers had their strongest growth in years.
For the past decade, Malaysia has run an elaborate campaign to market itself abroad as an ideal Asian destination, touting a multiethnic culture, lush rainforests and pristine beaches.
Despite the effort to internationalise, its tourism industry still relies heavily on tightly-packed neighboring Singapore and in a renewed push the government had designated 2014 as “Visit Malaysia Year.”
So when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing with 239 people on board en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, it put the global spotlight on Malaysia and seemingly dealt a blow to its tourism strategy.
A double whammy came four months later when a Malaysia Airlines jet was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board.
Tourism, however, grew at its fastest pace since 2008. Figures for all of 2014 haven’t been released yet but the January-October data shows 22.9 million visitors, a jump of nearly 10 per cent from a year earlier.
That far outpaced 2.5 per cent growth for the same period in 2013 and a 0.7 per cent rise in 2012. The full year growth rates for those two years are close to the 10-month figures.
“The bad publicity has made Malaysia more well known to the world,” said Jaya Kumar Sannadurai, vice president at Dayangti Transport and Tours.
The strong growth in tourism came despite a sharp drop in visitors from China, which had 153 nationals on Flight 370. Many in China were angered by Malaysia’s perceived mishandling of the tragedy.
For January-October, Chinese tourists to Malaysia dropped by 11 percent or some 175,000 people. It remained Malaysia’s third biggest source of visitors.
The country might fall a little short of the 28 million visitors goal for 2014 but a high level of fully paid advance tour bookings and a quick change in marketing strategy by tourism officials helped keep the industry on a growth path overall.
Tourism Malaysia cut promotions in China and focused efforts on India and other markets after Flight 370’s disappearance, said its deputy director-general Azizan Noordin. This helped to boost growth in all markets for the first 10 months of last year, except China and Taiwan, he said.
Arrivals from India, which is the 6th biggest source of visitors for Malaysia, were up 21 per cent and the number of South Koreans visiting increased by 43 per cent. There was also strong growth from Western nations such as the United Kingdom, US, Australia and Germany.