(Dewan Rakyat, Tuesday): Malaysian tourism industry is in crisis. Identified as a key subsector of the services sector being the second largest foreign exchange earner in the sector, the Malaysian tourism industry is facing a grave shortfall from its Seventh Malaysia Plan objective of reaching 12.5 million tourists by the Year 2,000 with the tourism receipts increasing to RM15.7 billion.
Tourism receipts were RM8.9 billion in 1994, RM11.2 billion in 1995, RM11.3 billion in 1996 and in 1997, there was a seven per cent drop to RM10.5 billion in 1997.
With the Kuala Lumpur '98 XVI Commonwealth Games in September and the Sports and Recreation Year '98' campaign launched by the Ministry of Tourism, the government has estimated 8.7 million foreign tourists for this year, bringing in a revenue of RM13.7 billion.
Can these targets be reached, with tourism receipts making a RM3.2 billion leap from RM10.5 billion last year to RM13.7 billion this year?
The Minister for Tourism, Datuk Sabarrudin Cik, had publicly confessed
that the Seven Malaysia Plan targets of 12.5 million tourists and
RM15.7 billion tourism receipts by the year 2000 cannot be reached
and that he would be happy if tourist arrivals could
reach 8 - 9 million by 2000, which would mean tourism receipts in the region
between RM10 billion to RM11.3 billion - a far cry from the targetted RM15.7
billion at the end of the Seventh Malaysia Plan.
The reasons for the crisis in the tourism industry in Malayia are many. In 1997, there were a series of disasters for the tourism industry such as the haze disaster with the Air Pollutant Index (API) reaching the all-time disastrous high of 839 in Sarawak, with the Sarawak Chief Minister, Tan Sri Taib Mahmud leading an exodus of locals and expatriates to countries overseas with clean air; the coxsackie virus which claimed a toll of 31, driving Sarawakians from their home state and of course deterring foreign tourists from coming to Malaysia; cholera which seriously caused a dent to the tourism industry in Penang and the currency crisis in the Asian region.
This year, there were other tourism disasters, with the return of the haze disaster though of a home-grown variety. Local mass media black-out of the haze disaster this year could not prevent news from reaching foreign countries and intending travellers. In fact, the information deficit in Malaysia arising from an aggressive government campaign against what it described as "negative reporting" by the local mass media is definitely a minus in promoting the tourism industry. Other tourism disasters include the four-month-long water shortage crisis in the Federal Capital and the Klang Valley, and most ironical of all, the opening of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
The KLIA was meant to be a magnet to draw tourists but instead it has become the latest reason driving away not only tourists, but Malaysians from flying if they have to go through KLIA, as the various highly-expensive and highly-sophisticated systems, like the baggage-handling system, have failed to operate smoothly despite a month of operations. It is still commonplace for travellers flying in from overseas to arrive at KLIA after four or five hoursí scheduled flight to be grounded for four to five hours at the KLIA waiting for their baggage!
More than a fortnight ago, I had proposed in Parliament that MAS should shift some of its flights back to Subang Airport in the interests the flying public, MAS and the tourism industry. I mentioned how before the shift from Subang to the KLIA, all Monday morning flights from Penang to Kuala Lumpur were fully booked, but after the shift to KLIA, the flights were carrying 10 to 20 per cent passenger traffic loads although the number of daily flights had been slashed by one third.
I am glad therefore that the Transport Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Ling Liong Sik has come to his senses, and he announced yesterday that MAS will shift some of its domestic flights back to Subang Airport for the "convenience of passengers", when it is also for the sake of MASí bottom-line and the tourism industry.
The first task of the Tourism Minister is to promote tourism at all costs and to create the conditions to make the tourism industry flourish in Malaysia. However, recently, Sabarrudin Cik has often been at the centre of controversy clouding the prospects of the tourism industry when he made rather intemperate remarks which is not conducive to attracting Singaporeans to spend their weekends and holidays in Malaysia.
There is going to be a debate in Parliament later today on my urgent, definite public importance motion on the latest strains in the Malaysia-Singapore relations arising from the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) checkpoint at Tanjong Pagar railway station, and I shal not anticipate the debate except to point out that as Tourism Minister, Sabarrudin Chik should be promoting rather than discouraging Singaporeans from visiting Malaysia.
The Seventh Malaysia Plan, for instance, referred to measures taken by the Government to "significantly facilitate cross-border travel" by Singaporeans as in the building of the second link between Johore Bahru and Singapore as well as the upgrading of train services by Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTMB), but all these mega-projects would come to nought if care is not taken to maintain the conditions conducive to promoting cross-border travel.
The government has estimated to draw 60,000 - 80,000 tourists for the Commonwealth Games next month. What percentage of this had been expected to comprise Singaporeans and how will the latest Malaysia-Singapore spat affect the total number of Singaporean tourist arrivals for the Commonwealth Games.
The Government must come out with a new strategy to achieve the Seven Malaysia Plan targets for the tourism industry, i.e. reaching 12.5 million tourists by the Year 2,000 with the tourism receipts increasing to RM15.7 billion.
This is particularly urgent and pressing, as there is increasing competition from developing countries within the Asian region such as Vietnam, Cambodia, China and India to gain a market share of the tourist industry. At the same time, well-known industry players such as Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore are launching aggressive promotions to attract tourists particularly from Europe.
As the won, yen, baht and rupiah suffered the regional currency crisis, there will be a decline in tourist arrivals from South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Indonesia.
The government should devise a package to help tour operators who face financial constraints due to the slowdown in tourist arrivals and tight credit situation. From September to December 1997, 85 per cent of tour bookings were postponed or cancelled. At the same time, there is a decline in outbound travel. The earnings among tourism-related companies are forecasted to drop sharply by about 30 per cent to 40 per cent for the fiscal year 1997/1998.
I call on the Home Ministry to review visa application process of strong potential markets such as China and India without sacrificing national security, as in granting a more liberal transit visa such as extending the 72 hours transit visa to 7 days for genuine tourists.
The government is discouraging Malaysians from travelling abroad. Last year, the government announced that Ministers and Deputy Ministers had been instructed to cancel all overseas holidays trips and to take their leaves inside the country.
Over the months, I have received reports that despite such a directive, there were Ministers and Deputy Ministers who were holidaying abroad with their families, the latest report being a Deputy Minister being sighted with his family in London more than a month ago.
Can the government give a full report as to whether the directive to all Ministers and Deputy Ministers banning them from holidaying overseas still apply, and who are the Ministers and/or Deputy Ministers who had gone overseas with their families on holidays during the past one year?
While the government is discouraging overseas travel to save on foreign
exchange, it should not impose an outright ban. I have today received
the following email from New Zealand, which reads:
"She informed me today that government servants have been told they are not permitted to holiday abroad because of the economic crisis. It appeared the move was to conserve cash flowing out of the country in these dark days.
"It is ok for the govt to encourage malaysians to holiday locally instead, *but* to deny them of their right to travel abroad is unconstitutional as it is denying them their freedom of movement. The restriction of travel notice is a directive, not a law. As such, I wonder whether it is enforceable."
Can the government clarify whether it has issued a directive to all government servants banning them from holiday abroad?