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Sunday, July 12, 2015
Wee to woo the tourists
Community spirit: Wee believes his biggest strength is his Kelantanese background. The state is well known for its gracious hospitality. — MOHD SAHAR MISNI / The Star
“You know, I was walking around the night market in Chiang Mai (Thailand) when I suddenly felt something falling on my head!” former political maverick Wee Choo Keong says animatedly.
He says he immediately looked up, wanting to find the culprit whom he assumed had thrown something down from an apartment.
“From the corner of my eye, I saw one of the stall vendors rushing to me while waving his hand frantically, saying ‘It’s ok, bird, bird.’
“Some bird dropping had landed on me. The vendor then gave me a big bottle of mineral water to wash it out of my hair and some tissues to wipe my head. I had not bought anything from his stall but he still helped me,” Wee recalls.
Should the same happen in Malaysia, Wee doubts many would even bat an eyelid, much less extend help to a tourist.
“This (kind of caring) is what is lacking here in Malaysia. We used to be ‘Asia truly Asia’, but it seems like we’ve forgotten this value, and this is what I want to do, to bring it back,” says the straight-talking new chairman of Tourism Malaysia.
Wee believes courtesy and heartfelt hospitality will be the X-factor to endear Malaysia to foreign tourists.
“We need to make tourists feel good while they are in Malaysia. Let them leave with fond and beautiful memories of us.
“This way, they will want to return again and again.”
He says Thailand managed to keep its niche in the global tourism scene because of the genuine warmth of the Thais when they deal with tourists.
“From the get go, they will try to accommodate all your needs and care, making you feel truly special,” says Wee.
Malaysia needs the tourists to put it on top of their list again, especially since 2014 which was really a tough year.
The country got the wrong kind of world press for the two air tragedies of MH370 and MH17; as well as the kidnappings in Sabah.
“But tragedy is not restricted solely to Malaysia. It is time for us in the industry to move on and see how we can improve the market.
“That is my priority – to stimulate our tourism industry.
“We (the tourism industry) have taken a severe beating, and it will be an uphill battle to turn around the nation’s battered tourism image, but it’s a challenge I welcome.”
Tourism Malaysia, which is responsible for the promotion of Malaysia at all levels, has a difficult task ahead.
In 2014, Malaysia registered 27.4 million tourist arrivals and RM72bil in receipts, making tourism its second largest foreign exchange earner.
The statistics compiled by Tourism Malaysia for the first quarter of the year reportedly showed a decline of about 600,000 arrivals compared to the same period last year, registering 6.4 million this year as compared to 7.1 million last year.
The country has set a target of 36 million tourist arrivals and RM168 billion in receipts by 2020.
That is why the tourism promotion work needs to go beyond Tourism Malaysia and its advertisements, says Wee.
“The true value of tourism promotion is in the people of Malaysia themselves – with their warm hospitality, courtesy and friendliness. This is what will bring tourists to our shores, and back again.”
Crucially, he adds, we need to remember that tourists are our customers.
“If we keep this in mind, we will not go wrong.
“We need to make the tourists our priority. We need to always take care of tourists’ interests and put their needs first. We need to show that if anything happens to them while they are visiting Malaysia, the community and authorities will help them.
“And we need to please our customers because we need to make sure the tourists spread the good word around.
“We want them to tell their friends and families that if they want to go on holiday, they should go to Malaysia – that we are nice people, friendly and the country is nice, with nice beaches and nice food ...” he says, reiterating that the word of mouth is more effective than any advertisement or promotional campaign.
Other incentives like free visas (as being pushed for the Chinese and Indian tourists) is also an important contributing factor and must be seriously considered, he says.
Many eyes will be watching how Wee will translate his words into action because politics, more than tourism, runs thick in his blood.
He started his political career as an Opposition party member with DAP. In 1990, he was elected MP for then Kuala Lumpur Bandar (later renamed Bukit Bintang).
In 1998, he was removed from the seat following a court case and was thrown out of the DAP for “damaging the party’s image”.
Wee then went on to form the Malaysian Democratic Party but was only able to run for election in 2004 due to the 1995 court ruling against him.
Undeterred, Wee ran again in 2008 under the PKR banner and won. But in 2010, he left PKR to be a Barisan-friendly Independent.
In 2013, Wee decided not to re-contest his seat and focused on his legal work.
Since his appointment as Tourism Malaysia chairman last month, Wee has had his fair share of the limelight – including a defamation suit by local budget airline AirAsia for his no-holds barred comments on his blog.
The 62-year-old corporate lawyer concedes that he is an outsider in the tourism circle, “but I am fresh blood to help inject new ideas to the organisation and the industry. It (the appointment) came as a surprise and I am really honoured.”
As he puts it, he is well primed for the job as he has been a backpacker, a business tourist as well as a holidaymaker to almost all over the world.
“My own travels to North and South America, Europe and Asia have given me a close look at how important tourism is as an industry, especially to a developing nation like Malaysia.
“I believe this gives me an edge and an in-depth understanding of what tourists need.”
His biggest strength, he says with pride, is his Kelantanese background.
Wee recalls the gracious hospitality and true community spirit in Kelantan where he spent his childhood years.
“I grew up in Kelantan among various cultures and races. We enjoyed this diversity and unity at the same time...Our differences became a unique attraction.
“I hope that we can extend this welcoming spirit to tourists in our country. Every Malaysian needs to internalise the spirit of tourism in themselves. So we must go back to the drawing board and inculcate this,” he says.
Wee urges Malaysians to show the world all the wonderful things that the country has to offer.
“Malaysia is blessed with many natural tourism assets and a peaceful, multi-cultural society.”
Other than rallying the respective tourism directors here and abroad, Wee will also be meeting stakeholders and the related agencies such as the Police and the Immigration to see how we can improve our tourism sector.
He also wants to encourage young entrepreneurs to venture into the tourism service industry.
“For example, they can provide water sports or adventure activities at tourist destinations.
“The government or Tourism Malaysia cannot support them financially but I believe we can give them the market – we will work hard on bringing in the tourists.”
Another group he wants to work with is the media, he says.
“We seem to be fixated on negative stories such as Islamic State terrorists and murder cases.
“If we keep on publicising such stories, we may inadvertently kill our tourism industry, which is among the country’s top income earners,” he says.
Wee stresses he is not asking the press to blackout negative news. However, the media must be balanced in its reporting and not sensationalise the bad news.
“Although the media is global now, any news will not gain traction worldwide if it’s not blown up or sensationalised locally.
“We should be like Singapore, which portrays itself as a trouble-free country. On the surface, Singapore is all perfect!”
Another priority for Wee is to boost domestic tourism.
“Sure, we want to attract more foreign tourists, especially the Chinese, but we also want to encourage Malaysians to travel and see their own country. Domestic tourism accounted for 50% of the receipts last year.”
Tourism Malaysia has just launched its Dekat Je campaign to stimulate domestic tourism in Malaysia.
Says Wee, foreign tourists, too, would be able to take advantage of the promotions andDekat Je travel packages.
Wee knows Tourism Malaysia has a hard job.
But he is not daunted by the challenge.
“Personally, I am more interested in the tourism receipts. We have to boost the amount of receipts from tourism too, because whatever that we gain will have a knock-on effect on the other areas of the economy.”
The moment tourists step foot in Malaysia, they will be spend their tourist dollars for transportation, accommodation, and even for a bottle of mineral water, he points out.
“The money they spend is income for our nation. It’s even more valuable when the tourist dollar goes straight to the locals and their community. So we must treat our tourists well – they are our customers!”