INTERVIEW – Muhammad Bakhtiar Bin Wan Chik, Deputy Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia – on the occasion of the arrival of Condor’s inaugural flight to Kuala Lumpur.

How important is tourism to Malaysia’s economy?

It is very important. Tourism accounts for around 14.9% of GDP and employs 3.4 million people. Almost 23% of Malaysians work in the tourism sector, so it is key that the tourism sector remain robust and continue to grow.

What is the policy of the new administration concerning tourism? Is anything different?

We will continue along the lines of what the previous government was doing… I think they were doing a good job. But now we are focussing in particular on cultural tourism, promoting our ecological sites, further promoting our UNESCO World Heritage sites, and ecotourism. We have abroad variety of landscapes on offer. This is something that is attracting more affluent, high-end tourists. The Prime Minister mentioned that the focus is to attract the high-end affluent tourists rather than the mass tourists. Thailand is heavily promoting tourism and next year is expecting around 40-million tourists. Malaysia only had 25.9 million last year. There is some spill-over effect across the border, as we are working with ASEAN in promoting the region, rather than simply promoting each individual country. We have been talking to Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand in promoting the region, and we have also been talking to travel agents about this.

Could you imagine a more formal agreement along these lines?

I talked to the Culture Minister and also to the deputy tourism minister of Thailand, and we haven’t started more formal meetings. Thailand also wants to bring tourists to Malaysia. 40 million is already a big number and they have the infrastructure for that. This year we are targeting 26.4 million, and by 2020, we are targeting 30 million tourist arrivals. Cabinet has not yet discussed plans for the Visit Malaysia 2020, but ITB is already going to be a major factor in our promotion.

So, you will be doing a lot more promotion in 2019?

Yes, for sure. Cabinet is also discussing our advertising and promotional budget, and this will be key. Thailand has US$420m and Indonesia has over US$200 gross budget, while our budget is around US$30m, so we really need to dedicate more budget to marketing, especially via digital platforms. Out of the 26 million tourists that came to Malaysia last year, three million came via bookings on Expedia… so digital marketing is key in the US, Europe, Australia and so on.

The 2018 PATA Travel Mart was held in Langkawi. What effect did this have on overall recognition for the archipelago as a destination?

Langkawi has 99 magical islands, and of course the UNESCO Geopark status. That’s what we want to promote – ecotourism. The Prime Minister mentioned in his mid-term review that the Government will expand and upgrade Langkawi airport, and to bring more connectivity from premium airlines as well as the low-cost airlines. We have 11 five-star hotels in Langkawi, and we are increasingly promoting the destination for honeymoons and weddings. The Langkawi Westin had 26 weddings this year – mainly Indian, and the turnover for each wedding averages four or five million Ringgit. Surrounding Langkawi, we are also looking at some of the archaeological sites in the Lembah Bujang valley – a place that saw the first human civilisation in Southeast Asia; much longer before Angkor Wat… We are talking to a few parties about how to develop this archaeological site. From Langkawi to Lembah Bujang is about one hour ferry ride. So we are not only promoting Langkawi, but also the region. Then there is Penang which is just 30 minutes’ flight from Langkawi. And Penang airport has, I believe, a capacity of seven million. Airport upgrading and connectivity is key. Now, with Condor Air’s new flights from Frankfurt, we are seeing a rebound in connections from one of Europe’s biggest hubs. I would not be surprised if Condor increases frequencies when they see how successful the route will be. American Airlines are also looking at opening a route. I met casually with the Deputy Mayor of Paris, and he suggested we should come to Paris to enter into talks with Air France, as Paris is a key hub in Europe.

Tourism Malaysia has a new chairman. Could you tell us a little bit about him?

Datuk Ahmad Shah Hussein Tambakau is from Sabah, and Sabah is a very important tourist destination – in particular for Chinese and Korean visitors. Of all the Koreans coming to Malaysia, around 60% travel to Sabah. There are a lot of chartered flights from China to Sabah. So, having someone from Sabah in this position is a key. He was a previous deputy minister, so he has government experience and Borneo experience, so I believe he will add value to Tourism Malaysia.

In terms of infrastructure what’s new?

There is a lot of airport upgrading. Langkawi is one, Penang is another. Kota Bharu – Kelantan is to be upgraded, and we plan to build a new jetty there. Kota Bharu has a lot of culture on offer and is a foodie heaven. On Desaru Coast, we will be building a jetty to bring people directly from Singapore.

What are the biggest challenges?

When the new government took over from the previous government that had been in place for over 60 years, we realised a lot of things were missing or needed to be done. It will take two or three years to stabilise. The prime minister is putting a lot of emphasis on tourism, and that’s a good thing.