KOTA KINABALU: Tourism Malaysia is banking on a deal with Singapore Airlines to bring in more European tourists to Malaysia this year, says Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.
He said Tourism Malaysia would sign a Memorandum of Under-standing with the Singapore air carrier in Berlin sometime in March.
"From the many visits with our counterparts in European countries, we find that the people there are very much interested in eco-tourism, and Borneo is a very popular choice of destination among them.
"And with Borneo, I mean Sabah, because this is the name they are familiar with," he said, adding that the name Borneo was better known than Sabah.
"We are targeting at least eight million tourist arrivals this year.
"It doesn't matter how or which airline they (visitors) come in as long as they do," he said, explaining why Singapore Airlines was chosen to be the partner in this programme.
Nazri was speaking during a dialogue session with tourism players here yesterday.
He said the deal was that Singapore Airlines would bring the tourists into Singapore first before bringing them to Sabah and other parts of Malaysia.
Nazri described Sabah as the gem of Malaysia's tourism industry as many tourists still opted to come to the state despite the Mount Kinabalu quake in June 5 last year and the terrorist attacks in Lahad Datu in February 2013.
He added that the series of kidnappings that occurred between 2013 and 2014 in Sabah also did not seem to deter tourists from returning.
"In fact, Sabah recorded only a 1.8 per cent drop in tourist arrivals while the whole country suffered a 6.7 per cent decrease in numbers in last year's statistics," he said.
He commended Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment minister Datuk Masidi Manjun for his team's dedication to improve the quality of tourism industry in the state.
Nazri said the quality of services in the hospitality industry must also be improved to entice more repeat and new visitors.
"Indonesia and the Philippines are catching up and they are giving tourists great services, so we need to step up our game," he added.
He also urged Sabah tourism players to take advantage of the visa-free policy for China tourists wishing to enter the country as the Chinese topped all nationalities in terms of arrivals here.
As such, he called on industry players to look into the preferences of Chinese tourists in terms of food and entertainment.
"Bring them here to enjoy local Chinese street food and famous dishes, such as the bah kut teh (meat bone tea) instead of bringing them to halal restaurants," he added.