Tourist arrivals from Saudi Arabia drop in 1Q19

Malaysia is a favourite destination for Mideast visitors and they have been a massive contributor to the country’s purse

by S BIRRUNTHA / pic by ARIF KARTONO

TOURIST arrivals from Saudi Arabia dropped 20.5% in the first three months of this year (1Q19) as economies in the region battle slowing growth, rising geopolitical tensions and the allure of other destinations.

During the January through March period this year, visitors from the third-biggest economy in the Middle East dropped to 17,438 people from 21,932 recorded in the same quarter a year ago, according to Tourism Malaysia’s official figures.

The number of people who visited Malaysia, however, rose 2.7% to 6.7 million during the same period from 6.52 million visitors in 1Q18.

The absence of visitors from Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest spenders of the country’s tourism purse, was obvious especially in Kuala Lumpur (KL). These visitors had previously flooded key shopping areas like KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) and Bukit Bintang. A lot of shops had mushroomed in the last few years to cater for these visitors.

Malaysia has been one of the favourite destinations for visitors from the Middle East and they have been a massive economic contributor to the country’s tourism purse.

Muslims from countries in the Middle East had shifted to countries like Malaysia after Donald Trump’s hard stand on visitors from the region.

Trump, during his presidential election, said he would ban all Muslims entering the US. Later, he introduced two travel bans involving six Muslim countries. The move boosted the arrival of foreigners from the Middle East to other countries, including Malaysia.

The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Datuk Tan Kok Liang said as of March this year, the tourist arrivals from West Asia countries stood at 65,202 people and the association has targeted 337,100 tourists from the region this year.

Tan said the overall Middle East economies were affected by the drop in global oil prices, political issues and geopolitical tensions, but he expects a rebound in visitor arrivals from the region.

“Other issues that we need to consider are: There are fewer direct flights from Saudi — which is the top contributor — fewer embargoes of Qatar Airways by other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) members, and the more expensive cost to fly from the Far East compared to European destinations.

“Honeymoon destinations like the Balkans, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece are increasingly popular.

“So, we need to enhance the experience and service delivery to improve the experience and employ more Arabic-speaking personnel to provide assistance,” he told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) in a text reply.

Recently, Malaysia welcomed the first and largest low-cost carrier (LCC) from the Middle East and North Africa, Air Arabia. The airline will provide a critical link between KL and Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The airline flies to more than 155 routes across the globe from four hubs located in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tan expects the new direct flight would boost the number of tourists from Sharjah as well as from Iraq, Egypt and other GCC markets.

“Malaysia will have more opportunities to further tap markets from West Asia as Sharjah could act as a feeder hub for travellers from Central Asia to Malaysia,” he said.

Tan added that last year, the tourist arrivals from West Asia to Malaysia rebounded 25.3% from 251,937 in 2017 to 315,937, led by Oman (36.9%), Saudi Arabia (11.6%) and the UAE (9.7%).

He said the rebound was largely due to the changing travelling trend as tourists from the region do not only travel during certain months. They are also exploring other destinations in Malaysia besides KL.

Meanwhile, Tourism Selangor Sdn Bhd corporate communications manager Ahmad Nazri Tashriq Rahmat said the drop in the number of tourists from the Middle East could be attributed to the decline of advertising activities in international markets.

“Additionally, lack of promotion on new tourism products and destinations, and also political instabilities in the Middle East could add to the reasons on why the numbers have been declining.

“Competition can also be cited as one of the factors because countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have also been aggressively promoting their destinations in the Middle East,” he told TMR in an email reply.

Other South-East Asian countries have been wooing visitors from the Middle East due to their deeper pockets.

Ahmad Nazri said the Middle East travellers are renowned for recognising quality and would seek family-friendly luxury offerings.

“Last year, for Selangor alone, more than 185,000 tourists from the Middle East visited the state,” he said.

The launch of Air Arabia service to KL is expected to boost tourist arrivals up to 10%.