The tourism authorities are working hard to win back the Chinese tourists who have dropped in huge numbers since MH370 and the Sabah kidnappings.
It has been a difficult year for tourism in the country. The mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 where two-thirds of its passengers were Chinese nationals and the abduction of a Chinese tourist from a resort in Sabah early this year have made many Chinese tourists stay away out of fear and anger. Despite the setback, Malaysia seems on track to meet its Visit Malaysia Year 2014 (VMY) target of 28 million tourists. Now with the Year of the Festival 2015 around the corner, the country is going all out now to win back Chinese tourists who are a huge and important segment of the tourism industry.
Sounding a little exasperated, Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz says he cannot understand "the thinking of some people".
"We have this thinking that Malaysia is the only country people want to visit in the world! And we want to be so stuck up!" he elaborates.
He points to exciting new tourist destinations in the region such as Timor Leste and Myanmar and other popular destinations like Indonesia and Thailand which are competing toe-to-toe with Malaysia for the tourist dollar.
Nazri is keen to reel in the Chinese tourists who come in huge numbers, love shopping and are big spenders. As an incentive, he is proposing that Chinese tour groups be allowed to enter Malaysia visa free or be exempt from "exorbitant" visa fees for next year.
While the government charges only 80 to 100 yuan (S$17 to 21) or roughly RM50 (S$19) for a visa, he says, this has been outsourced to private companies who charge 400 yuan to 500 yuan or about RM250 for a visa.
"If it's a family of four, they end up paying RM1,000 for the visas which is too much," he says.
To prevent possible abuse, he suggests a visa waiver or fee exemption for Chinese tour groups. But there is a hitch. To do this, the Immigration Department would need to give its feedback and based on experience, Nazri says their feedback is "normally negative".
"Their thinking always is that the Chinese will come in, overstay and not leave. I can't understand their thinking," he shares.
He contrasts this to how Thailand woos the Chinese - by reacting positively and lifting visa requirements after Chinese arrivals dropped to 2 million tourists during the street protests, military coup and martial law early this year.The Thai strategy worked and brought in 4 million Chinese tourists.
"Why? Because they made it easy for the Chinese to come in. Countries are doing this. And because of this, we lost out to Thailand. We were in the UNWTO's (World Tourism Organisation) 10 most visited countries list (2012), but this year, we have dropped to 11th place with Thailand beating us to the 10th spot.
For Malaysia, the year 2014 had started well as a preferred destination of Chinese tourists until March 8, when MH370 mysteriously disappeared. Barely a month later, on April 2, Malaysia again received bad press when a 29-year-old Chinese tourist was kidnapped from Singamata Reef Resort in Semporna, Sabah. Chinese tourists started cancelling their Malaysian holidays and their numbers plummeted.
"The number of Chinese tourists plunged by 35 per cent in May and it was a 30 per cent drop in June," recalls Nazri.
Tourism revenue was affected as Chinese tourists rank third after Singaporeans and Indonesians in terms of the money they spend in Malaysia.
Nazri believes the April 2 kidnapping in Sabah had an even bigger impact on the Chinese than the missing MH370. Right after the kidnapping, 35 chartered flights from China to Sabah were immediately cancelled.
In comparison, he says, it is rare for a plane to crash or go missing.
"It is bad luck if that happens. When you take a flight, it is not as if you are exposing yourself to that risk. But when you go to Sabah, you know the kidnappers are so active you are actually exposing yourself to the risk by going there! That is why Chinese tourists are not going to Sabah. They are very much affected by the kidnappings.
"It used to be their favourite destination because of the beach, warm seawater and seafood."
Early last year, after Sulu gunmen from southern Philippines brutally killed policemen in Semporna and another armed group landed at Kampung Tanduo, Lahad Datu to stake their claim of Sabah which turned violent, the Malaysian authorities set up Esscom (Eastern Sabah Security Command) and a 1700 km Eastern Sabah Security Zone (Esszone) which covers 10 districts, including Semporna, Lahad Datu, Tawau and Kunak.
But Nazri bluntly points out that even with Esscom up and running, there is still a spate of kidnappings in those areas it is supposed to secure.
(Last November, gunmen stormed a resort on Pom Pom island off Semporna, killed a Taiwanese tourist and kidnapped his wife for ransom and held her for a month. In May this year, armed men abducted a 34-year Chinese fish farm manager in Pulau Batik off Lahad Datu, in June armed men seized a fish breeder and his employee in Kunakand in July, gunmen killed a policeman on Pulau Mabul and took another hostage.)
Nazri says because of these kidnappings, he does not want to tell tourists to come to Sabah and assure them that they will be safe there.
"I don't want to put our guests at risk. But I don't think we should declare Sabah 'unsafe'. There are travel advisories from embassies of other countries on it and I think that should be enough. We shouldn't make it worse by declaring it 'unsafe'."
While Chinese nationals are staying away from Sabah, Nazri says, other nationalities are still coming into the state as normal.
"So overall, Sabah is still doing well in tourism," he adds.
Although Chinese nationals are jittery over Sabah, data indicates that they are starting to come back to other states in Malaysia.
Nazri says in August, there was only a 9 per cent drop in Chinese tourists compared to the 35 per cent and 30 per cent drop in May and June.
"We are quite confident that by the end of the year, Chinese tourist arrivals will return to normal."
But it took a lot of work to get back to this point.
Nazri says when MH370 disappeared, they pulled out Visit Malaysia tourism advertisements as a sign of respect for the victims' families who are in pain and suffering.
He says Malaysia put out a news crawler and video on Chinese TV to tell the Chinese how sorry it is over the incident and let them know that Malaysia too shares their grief.
Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board chairman Tan Sri Ng Yen Yen and Tourism Malaysia officers went over to China to meet with the travel agents and tour operators there to explain the situation over the missing plane and commiserate with the Chinese.
Since the frustration and anger towards Malaysia came from first tier cities like Beijing Shanghai and Guangzhou, Nazri says Malaysia's tourism focus shifted to second tier cities like Wuhan, Tianjin and Chengdu which were not so angry and aggressive.
He points out that Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's visit to China to mark the 40th anniversary of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations in late May helped too because the Chinese premier promised the Malaysian Prime Minister he would get Chinese tourists to go to Malaysia.
Following that, the first of 130 chartered flights from China came to KL, says Nazri, and that lifted the numbers.
To meet VMY's target of 28 million tourists, he says Malaysia went on a "rampage" to South Asia, ASEAN, Oceania, Europe, the Middle East and other regions to woo tourists and registered a good increase in numbers. This made up for the loss of Chinese tourists.
"We actually recorded a 10 per cent in the number of tourist arrivals to Malaysia compared to 2013," says Nazri.
For 2015 - the Year of the Festivals - Malaysia is targeting 29.4 million tourists.
"If we can reach 28 million tourists this year without Chinese tourists, can you imagine how many tourists we would have if the Chinese had been coming?"
Nazri is still determined to push for free visa or fee-exempt visas for the Chinese.
"Let's try it just for a year. China is a big market. How on earth are we going to achieve our target of 29.4 million tourists if we don't welcome the Chinese here? It will be difficult."