Show me the tourist dollar

Tourism provides employment to the poorest of the poor. Gram seller earns something, auto-rickshaw driver earns something, pakoda seller earns something, and tea seller also earns something.

Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister


Langkawi Tourism Organisation president Ahmad Pishol Isahak was reported to have said that many of its members had been struggling despite the increase in foreign tourist arrivals for the first quarter of this year, as many visitors no longer head towards the duty-free island.

In the same report, inbound tours industry veteran Eric R Sinnaya voiced concern on the disconnect between tourism statistics and what happened on the ground, as official figures went up, but businesses were down.

Malaysia Association of Hotels Kedah/Perlis chapter chairman Eugene Dass reported that hotel occupancies were below targets for the first three months of the year. Langkawi Businesses Association deputy president Datuk Issac Alexander disclosed that its members had complained of lower arrivals this year compared to previous years.

In recent times, Tourism Malaysia had been releasing tourist arrival figures on a quarterly basis. For the fourth quarter of last year, it was released on February 27, and the first quarter of this year on May 29.

Entry figures are gathered by the Immigration Department and numbers could be totalled up immediately at the end of each month at the press of a button, since the system to record all entries and exits at all our international checkpoints are computerised.

It would be better for Tourism Malaysia to post tourist arrival figures monthly at its website before the seventh day of each month without having to table at a Cabinet meeting first. This will allow tourism industry players to be more proactive instead of reacting much later, such as January’s performance in May.

Tour operators ought to take cognisance that tourists are now very different from those of yesteryears when group tours were popular as they were much cheaper than travelling independently, and necessary for those who could not find their way on their own.

Today, many tourists book cheap air fares without paying travel agents to do so and need not depend on taxis for local transport or tour operators for sightseeing.

They no longer carry large foldable maps or ask around for directions or information, as their smartphones provide all the information they need, which can also be used for navigation and e-hailing service that is more reliable and cheaper than taxis.

As such, a popular tourist destination could be swarming with visitors but tour operators, bus drivers and tourist guides could just be spectators. Similarly, hotels could be near empty if majority of tourists there chose to stay at unlicensed private accommodation.

Just like taxi associations have clamoured in the past, hotel associations would continue to call on the authorities to regulate unlicensed operators renting out rooms, apartments or houses on daily or weekly basis.

But behind the scene, many hotel owners are quietly adding or switching to offering private accommodation by adopting the maxim: If you can’t beat them, join them. But why is the government supporting an underground economy that pays little or no licence fees or taxes?

While tourism industry players are fixated on tourist arrival figures, they should be more interested on the RM21.4 billion spent by foreign tourists in the first quarter. While arrival figures were based on actual counts, tourism receipts were based on educated guesstimates.

Likewise, the Department of Statistics estimated there were 205.4 million domestic visitors in 2017, comprising 64 per cent excursionists (day trippers) and 36 per cent tourists (overnight visitors).

Together, they spent RM83.1 billion and 76.7 per cent were on shopping, food and beverage, fuel and in the households visited. Only 8.6 per cent, or RM7.1 billion, were on paid accommodation. Alarmingly, unlicensed operators are fast encroaching into hotels’ traditional business.

Reports on Domestic Tourism Survey are released annually on June 30, which showed an increase every year. Tour operators ought to understand the survey well as less than three per cent were on expenses before the trips, packages, entrance fees and tickets.

In other words, the overwhelming majority of domestic visitors are into Do-It-Yourself (DIY) arrangements without using the service of tour operators, and the largest number, at 41.9 per cent, were visiting relatives and friends, including balik kampung during festive seasons.

If Tourism Malaysia could provide details of foreign tourists’ expenditure, I would be least concerned with the accuracy of these estimates and most interested on where the money was spent, as what they spent on have already been made known.

It is imperative that tourism industry players know where and what tourists spend on in order to cater to their needs. Otherwise, they could be operating at locations lacking tourist traffic or offering unappealing products to visitors.

Assuming what customers need is not good business practice but that is exactly what many tourism industry players are doing. However, Tourism Malaysia could lead them out of the poor-business trap by disclosing where tourist dollars are spent.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.