When officiating at the tourism sharing session on China/Mongolia Motor Touring at Pustaka Miri recently, Assistant Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture Datuk Lee Kim Shin called on tourism operators to organise more motor touring programmes.

Last week’s programme was organised by Federation of Foochow Association Malaysia and the co-organisers were China’s Automobile Leisure Touring Team and Kunming Society-Custom International Travel Company.

Most Malaysian tourists would balk at the idea of driving in China or other countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines or Switzerland, where motor vehicles are driven on the right side of the road.

They would be more comfortable driving in Japan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Australia or United Kingdom, where motorists drive on the left side of the road and steering wheel is on the right side of the vehicle.

But motoring enthusiasts are not easily daunted, and challenges would only make the drive more interesting. We may not have high plateaus or arid deserts for extreme experiences, but our trunk roads are a joy to drive at a leisurely pace.

I was first involved in the car rental business in the 1970s but the most interesting times were in the 1980s when catering to foreign tourists that made reservations in advance. My company was based in Kuala Lumpur but often delivered rental cars to Changi Airport in Singapore to meet customers flying all the way from Switzerland.

Imagine a full-size Caucasian squeezing into a tiny Datsun 120Y, jet lag and all, seated on the other side of the car where he normally would and driving on the “wrong side” of the road straight into Johor in the middle of the night.

The rental fees of our cars were much cheaper than those in Singapore, and so were Malaysian hotels. Such tourists would drive all over peninsular Malaysia for a week or more on our trunk roads when the North-South Expressway was non-existent.

While I feared for their safety and comfort, these adventurous Swiss tourists were having a time of their life in our tropical paradise, and like clockwork, the cars would always be returned to us at the agreed time and venue, usually in Kuala Lumpur or Penang and sometimes Singapore.

Tourists from Australia were just as interesting. At the beginning, we naively thought matured lady companions must be the wives of the men. After several gaffes, we learned that many couples were friends or lovers. Many of them had probably enjoyed driving all over Australia, a country so vast it is called a continent with three different time zones.

In 1982, my brother and I drove across Australia from Perth to Sydney, stopping over at many cities and towns including Albany, Adelaide and Canberra, apart from driving past sandstorms and wild camels in the desert, and earning the bragging rights of crossing the Nullarbor Plain.

Most Australian tourists rented our cars for two or three weeks, and sometimes there were only two ladies, fully confident that Malaysia was a safe country, and indeed it was back then. They made full use of their annual vacation and spent a most relaxing holiday in our country.

Likewise, Sarawak now has much to offer and there is no need to wait for the Pan Borneo Highway to be fully ready. While the new highway would boost vehicle speed and safety bringing enormous economic benefits, it is the rustic charm of trunk roads that tourists find most endearing.

Tourists could easily pick up a car at Kuching and drive to Sibu, Bintulu and Miri, passing by or making detours to various towns, villages and natural sites. If there are not making a round trip, the car could be picked up or dropped off at any city without being charged outstation delivery or collection fees.

This would be easier when several car rental companies work as a consortium, renting out cars belonging to participating companies, instead of charging tourists or bearing unnecessary costs of using a staff to travel by public transport, drive an empty leg and incur dead mileage.

These car rental companies could also jointly promote motoring holidays by offering tour packages that include rental car and hotel room, and to set fixed weekly or monthly schedules and route for those wishing to join others to travel in a convoy.

There is no need for these rental cars to tailgate one another, which is dangerous, as the last vehicle operated by a car rental company could act as sweeper to ensure all tourists reach the intended destination, which could be the next town or stop at an interesting site.

The advantage of participating in such convoys would be the rousing welcome organised at many stops, which could be watching a local show or demonstration, shopping for local handicrafts, enjoying an invigorating massage, sampling local fruits or having a great meal.

In 1996, I applied for Hire & Drive permits when setting up yet another car rental company and wrote in my working paper that “Fly-Drive” tourists deserve the red-carpet welcome. This is because they spread the tourist dollar everywhere they go, benefitting many smaller hotels, restaurants and handicraft shops.

They are the exact opposite of zero-fare tours which brings minimal benefit to the destination, leaving the locals as bystanders, while enriching a few retail outlets, tourist guides and tour leaders.

Car rental companies should exploit the fact that Malaysia is one of the best places in the world for a motoring holiday. Although car prices may not be cheap, fuel prices are. I still remember some Arab tourists, through force of habit, kept several large cans of drinking water in the car.

It was no laughing matter as they are needed for survival should the vehicle breakdown in the desert. But I had a laugh each time when someone proposed to introduce caravans to our country, as hotels are plentiful and affordable, even in the smallest towns.

It would be a grave mistake for local authorities, in the name of tourism, to create caravan parks and providing electricity and piped water. Although the intention is noble, mobile caravans would soon be crowded out by old containers and buses converted as “caravans” parked there permanently by a colony of squatters. -Y S Chan