Hazy days ‘badly’ affecting tourist arrivals to Malaysia

The haze pollution stemming from uncontrolled forest fires in Indonesia contributed to a 12% year-on-year drop in tourist arrivals to Malaysia in September and a 6.7% decline in October, a top industry official said.

“The smog has had a ‘major detrimental effect’ on not just inbound but also domestic tourism,” said Nigel Wong, honorary secretary general of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta).

There is no data to specifically pinpoint the drop in tourist arrivals to haze concerns, as multiple factors, including a terror attack alert issued by the US government on Sept 24, also contributed to the drop, Wong noted.

Official Tourism Malaysia data up to June shows arrivals fell 9.4% to 12.5 million visitors for the first-half of this year.

Matta’s figures are calculated using plane arrivals — while the Tourism Malaysia uses immigration data, Wong said.

“The actual numbers are different, but the trend is what counts,” said Wong.

Many Malaysian tourism destinations — in Sabah or Sarawak, for example — are green or natural, and a lot of activities have been badly affected by the smog, the official said.

Jonatan Anderias Lassa, a research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at Nanyang Technological University, told Singaporean media last week it would take another 10 years for Indonesia to eradicate the haze through regulatory laws.

“We think Indonesia should expedite (measures to curb the haze). Ten years is too long,” Wong said.

A year after the twin air tragedies hurt Malaysia’s tourism industry, the ugly head of the lingering haze has emerged three times this year, as peat fires rage on in Indonesia.

Five travel agencies polled by The Malaysian Reserve said inbound and domestic visitors had dropped by varying degrees due to the haze.

“Last week, I found out that three groups of tourists from China cancelled their trips to Penang because of the haze,” said K Thangavelu, a director at Grandlotus Travel Agencies Sdn Bhd.

Tourists from China and India, the third and sixth largest inbound tourists, seek out Malaysia to escape their “densely populated” countries and experience the “beaches and clear blue skies” the country has to offer, Thangavelu said.

But the haze has made the sky “dark”, and also diminished the natural colours of Malaysia’s seas — taking bookings away from tour agencies and hotels, said the official.

Visits from Sri Lanka, India and China have fallen 27%, 3.5%, and 11.7% respectively in the first six months.

“If the haze is going to come on and off (every year), it may damage our industry permanently,” Thangavelu said. Some 27.4 million tourists visited Malaysia, the world’s 12th most visited country in 2014, garnering RM72 billion in receipts.

Average tourist spending per capita was RM2,544.90 in 2013, according to government figures.

“The protracted impact of the Indonesian haze on Malaysia and Singapore during the past month has raised concerns about the impact the haze is having on the tourism industry,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Tourism is a key industry for Malaysia, accounting for around 13% of the national gross domestic product, including both domestic and international tourism, noted Biswas.

“Indonesia needs to accept concrete action measures such as deployment of fire-fighting teams from other Asean countries to assist Indonesia with its fire prevention and containment plan of action,” said the economist.

Asean agreements such as the Asean Regional Haze Action Plan in 1997 as well as the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution in 2003 to combat illegal peat fires have failed to prevent or even significantly mitigate the Indonesian illegal fires, Biswas said.