Interview with LADA CEO and PATA Vice-Chairman, Dato’ Haji Azizan Bin Noordin.
Dato’ Haji Azizan Bin Noordin is the CEO of Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) and is Vice Chairman of PATA and Chairman of the organisation’s Government Destination Sub-Committee. We firstly asked Dato’ Azizan to explain to us the key roles of LADA.
LADA was formed in 1990, and it was to oversee the development of the island, primarily to attract investments, as well as to build tourism, and to develop the local community. Since I came in, I have been putting a lot of emphasis on the “low lying fruits”, and especially on events. We had 35 events last year alone in the tourism sector, averaging around three a month. They included the Royal Langkawi Classic Car Show, Royal Langkawi Superbike, some extreme sports, even beach volleyball, with the world FIVB coming here. All these things are attracting more and more people to Langkawi. Naturally the airlines are doing their bit, with new flights to the island and expansion works to the air terminal, expanding capacity by around 20%.
In the past, I worked with Tourism Malaysia, which gave me a lot of contacts, and we are getting a lot of attention from the airlines. Air Asia have increased their flights. Not only from Kuala Lumpur, Guangzhou and Singapore, but now from Shenzhen, Johor Bahru and from Kuching in Borneo. We are also getting attention from China Southern Airlines, who are flying three flights a week to Langkawi from Guangzhou. Malindo is running charter flights from Chengdu. Quite often we get charter flights coming in from other parts of China, because we have some promotional incentives for them.
The airport is currently handling 3-million passengers a year, and by the end of 2018 that could rise to 4-million. For 2020, our target is 5-million tourists.
Last year, inbound tourism increased by around 8% year on year; but the pattern has really changed. It’s very hard for us to check on the exact origins of tourists, because many are already in the country. Some come through international ports, but some go through Kuala Lumpur, take a train, then a ferry. We are also very close to Southern Thailand, so Langkawi can be a good entry point for tourists coming into Malaysia from Thailand. So now we are getting more tourists coming in via the airlines. Also, the new Ro-Ro car ferry service from Kuala Perlis is growing rapidly in popularity. It grew by 100% in 2017. This means we are seeing a lot more people here on the weekend, as people can just drive up and stay three days and two nights.
What about European and other ‘Western’ tourists?
Europeans are increasingly ‘discovering’ Langkawi. From one week before Christmas until the end of January, everything was full, but there were very few Malaysians. This is when we had the Langkawi International Blues Roots Aseana Music Festival, as well as the Island Music Festival. With this, the community is happier, as there are more opportunities for business, which is good, because I would say close to 95% of businesses on Langkawi rely on tourism business. That’s why this year, we have to really step up with our promotion, and consequently I have been receiving a lot of enquiries about investment. We are getting quite a lot of inquiries about setting up hotels. Currently we have around 10,500 rooms in 3-, 4- and 5-star properties, not counting Airbnb and budget hotels.
What’s in the pipeline?
Ritz Carlton was just completed. We have the Park Royal, as well as several other very high-end hotels coming up. Through the extra promotion we are undertaking in 2018, we hope there will be more investors interested, to bring-in more luxury resorts. We believe that Langkawi could become the “Monaco of the East”. Interestingly, there are 99 islands in Langkawi, which is a UNESCO Global Geopark… Otherwise known as ‘LUGG’. 2018 is the tenth anniversary, and over the next year, people from UNESCO will be coming here to revalidate the title. Literally, the soil we are standing on here is about 450-million years old. It’s older than the Amazon.
Geo-historically, Australia was part of this island! Of the 99 islands, only three are inhabited, so a little like the Maldives, it may be possible to develop some islands as exclusive resorts. The difference is that here, these are islands, not atolls.
Why did PATA decide to hold their annual Travel Mart in Langkawi in September 2018?
I have been very active in PATA for more than 38 years. At one time, I was the Chairman of the PATA destination sub-committee in Bangkok, and so for three consecutive years, I was the PATA Malaysia President. The last time the PATA Travel Mart was here was in 2001, so it’s been a long time. And the last big event here of this kind was the ASEAN Travel Forum in 2005. And I organised the annual PATA summit – it was only a conference – in the year 2012. So, I was very excited about it, and when I got this job, I thought, ‘Why not bring the PATA Travel Mart here?’ I spoke to my former employer, Tourism Malaysia, and they agreed to the idea, and we went to bid for it in Sri Lanka last year, and we were able to bring the PATA Travel Mart here. Naturally, with the buyers and sellers coming here, and the foreign media, we hope we can put not only Langkawi, but also Malaysia, again on the international platform for tourism. The build-up to the event is also very important. That’s why we are keen to have the PATA Travel Mart here. We hope this will be a turning point.
What different tourism products are being developed in Langkawi?
Langkawi, along with the state of Kedah, make-up the ‘rice bowl’ of Malaysia. A few years back, they established the Laman Paddy in Langkawi, and it is my duty to upgrade it. The number one attraction there is still the museum, showing the harvesting, and how rice is processed. There are nine paddies, and people can try their hand at planting as well. It’s a hands-on experience. Most of the visitors there are foreign tourists. People can have lunch or dinner on site, and make it an interesting and relaxing day. It looks like a village, not like a commercial tourist venture. Six small chalets have been built in the paddies for people who want to stay overnight. We now have a proposal from someone who wants to develop this place further. The concept will remain, but the museum will probably be upgraded and be more ‘hands on’.
Then there is Pregnant Maiden Island with its lake. It’s a fresh water lake – highly alkaline because of the limestone. And the distance from the lake to the sea is only about five metres. It’s really interesting, and it’s only around 30 minutes’ boat ride from the main island. A large number of Chinese and Arab tourists are going there.
Then there’s jet skis. Jet ski tours are available via the Mega Water Sport company – round the island on a jet ski – around four or five hours. Helicopter tours are also now available.
For adventure lovers, there is the Umgawa zipline. It’s the only zipline eco-adventure tour in Matchinchang Cambrian GeoForest Park. Soar over a waterfall, see clear views of the ocean surrounding this magical island from high in the sky. The course features 12 ziplines, 4 skybridges, thrilling descents, and extraordinary eco-education, but it is the location that will take the visitor’s breath away.
Ayer Hangat Village is a modern cultural complex located 14km north of Kuah Town. The centre of the attraction is the three-tiered hot water spring wells. The most interesting part is that it is a natural salt water hot spring which is rare and can be found only in three other countries in the world. Fresh water hot springs are common and can be seen in several places, but not the salt water hot springs. Renovations are being undertaken here to make the place more customer-oriented, with individual spas and so on. This is one of Langkawi’s very original attractions.
How is tourism infrastructure evolving?
In tourism, there is always this element of shopping. I was once head of the shopping secretariat of Malaysia and we really did quite well, because Kuala Lumpur became the fourth best shopping city in the world, after London, New York and Tokyo. That meant we were ahead of Hong Kong and Singapore. In Langkawi, we are now also trying to encourage people to do shopping here. The Chinese tourists in particular are travelling outside their country for the first time, and they love shopping. Many have never seen the crystal blue sea we have here because they come from a landlocked area, and have never even seen the sea. So, combining that with shopping is a dream! There are three new projects on the drawing board at the moment. One is for an outlet centre, which would be a big plus for Langkawi, because for the moment in Malaysia we only have a couple of other main ones. One is the Johor Premium Outlets, and the other is near KLIA, with a new one in the pipeline also near KL. Another segment which is growing very fast is cruising, with an ever-increasing number of cruise ships berthing here.
In the 2018-2019 season – from December through March – TUI will bring in 24 charter flights from the UK to Langkawi. They are going to bring one of their cruise ships to be stationed here, and they are going to run a round tour from Langkawi to Bangkok. We are talking about 9,000 PAX. Presently we have about 15 cruise liners that come into Langkawi every month, and every time they come in, it’s a big thing. A lot of these tourists love shopping as well.
Looking at different tourism segments, for example weddings. How is this kind of tourism evolving?
It’s booming on Langkawi. Some Indians bring along 200 or 300 friends and family for their wedding, staying up to a week. It’s very lucrative for the hotel and for the agent that organises it. Most have their own wedding planners back home. When I was with Tourism Malaysia, we went to India quite often. We did presentations to the wedding planners and brought them here for fam trips. Here, they could see the florist shops, the pyrotechnics, and the hotels best able to suit their needs.
What about cultural tourism?
Since I came in, we are trying to do a lot of new things. Cultural tourism blends well with the Homestay Programme here. We have about six villages here where people can do Homestay. The Homestay programme is operated by the government, whereby the Homestay operators – the owners of the houses – have to provide at least one, but not more than three, bedrooms in their house for their guests to stay. The guests eat what the owner eats, so in this way, the visitor is really submerged in the local culture. The visitors can also learn how to dance the Malay dance, to go fishing in the river or the sea. That’s a kind of cultural tourism that we have.
Other than that, I am trying to organise, periodically, packages that go around the festive seasons here. We have the Chinese New Year, we have the Hindu Deepavali, the Malay kite festival, and the Thai Buddhist celebrations as well, which are very strong. These are the four main communities here.
How are you working with other regional tourism authorities from around Malaysia in terms of attracting more international tourists?
I have just created a platform between Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo and Langkawi for attracting foreign tourists to come here. These three places are highly complementary. One has mountains, the other has the jungle, and we have the islands. This has been extremely interesting for travel professionals from around the world. LADA is also taking the lead for the local tour operators to participate in the main fairs. There are two main events in Malaysia every year. We are also bringing agents from here to attend major trade shows like ITB Berlin.
What would you say are the three “key selling points” of Langkawi?
That’s the million-dollar question. Number one is the Geopark status. We have the clear blue sky, the pristine seas and beaches. Number two is the attractions within that. We have the mountain and the cable cars, we have the boat rides to go the islands, we have the Laman Padi… everything is very unique in Malaysia, the region, and indeed even the world. Thirdly I believe it’s the culture and the people.
What is your vision for the future of tourism on Langkawi?
Number one, in terms of numbers, we have set 2020 to have five-million tourists. But to achieve that, we need to get more airlines coming in with direct flights. So, I am working on bringing in more direct flights from China, Hong Kong and Korea, and also from India. Also, if we can get direct flights from any part of Europe, this would be a major bonus. Another source market we are trying to develop is the eastern part of Russia, which is geographically very close to us. I have been to Vladivostok a couple of times and we are still working on this market. Presently we get Russian groups coming in via Korean Airlines. Another key factor to success will be bringing in new international hotel brands. MICE will also be a growth area. We have two very modern convention centres for this: the Langkawi International Exhibition Centre, and also the Massouri Hall, which comes under the management of LADA. Finally, in terms of workforce, it is important for us to encourage the young people of Langkawi to stay here and work here. We currently have around 80-90% local people working in hotels here. We hardly have any foreign operatives – only in the management positions, but other than that, all the workers are locals.