In 2010, tourism was Malaysia’s second largest earner of foreign exchange. There were 23.65 million foreign visitors in 2009, up 7.2 percent from the previous year, according to the UNWTO, 9th in the world, up two notches from the previous year. Malaysia received 13.29 million foreign visitors in 2002, 15th in the world, and third in Asia after China and Hong Kong. Overseas visitors added $7.8 billion to Malaysia's $118 billion economy in 2004, making tourism the second-largest foreign-exchange earner after exports of semi-conductors and other goods.

The tourism industry in Malaysia has grown consistently with the exception of a brief lull after the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002. From 1990 to 2005, tourist arrivals increased from 7.4 million to 16.7 million, with more than half the tourists were from neighboring Singapore, many of them daytrippers. From 1990 to 2005, tourist receipts increased from US$1.7 billion to US$8.4 billion per year. In 2003 the government announced the establishment of a US$105.3 million Special Tourism Fund to revive the tourism industry and a US$52.6 million Tourist Infrastructure Fund to build and upgrade tourist facilities and amenities.

There has been some discussion of bringing Disneyland to Malaysia but nothing much has come of it. Malaysian developer Francis Yeow Sock Ping has a plan to build a $80 million "archeo-ecological" tourist resort near Angkor Wat. International travel is growing at three times the world average among Koreans, Taiwanese, Thais and Malaysians.

In Asia, Gan Kim Khoon, head of research at AmSecurities Holdings Sdn told Bloomberg, “It's fast becoming a very competitive business, attracting tourists.” Malaysia needs to focus on niche markets such as ecotourism, rather than attempt to be everything to everyone, he said.

Eco-tourism is a big money maker in Malaysia. It is hoped that its popularity will encourage the government to save the country’s forest and area of natural beauty rather then let them get eaten up by logging, mining and farming interests.

Malaysia - Truly Asia or Truly Bizarre?

About 7.2 million foreign tourists visited Malaysia as part of "Visit Malaysia 1994" promotion. Michelle Yeoh was featured prominently in the “Malaysia, truly Asia” advertising campaign in 2007. The revenue target for that campaign—which featured 50 events nationwide, including dragon boat races, flower shows and music festivals and marked Malaysia’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain— was$131 billion, almost 10 percent of the economy. A Malaysian tourism minister proposed hold a mass circumcision to attract tourists.

In January 2007, Reuters reported: “Malaysia has launched its biggest tourism drive since independence under its famous slogan "Malaysia: Truly Asia", but it may as well read "truly bizarre". Recent visitors to the Southeast Asian nation have read serious newspaper articles about miracle healers and a mysterious giant ape in the country's southern jungles. Now, there is a woman who apparently secretes gem-stones out of her big toes. The wondrous toes of 23-year-old Siti Suhana Saadon, a rubber-tapper's daughter, have become a media sensation, drawing serious commentary from health officials and medical experts. Welfare authorities have even offered to pay for tests to be carried out on the poor villager and her collection of clear round stones, the New Straits Times said on Thursday. "I would like to see her. Her condition is very unusual," the mainstream daily quoted a senior academic as saying. [Source: Reuters, January 25, 2007 ^]

“Malaysians are willing to suspend disbelief when dealing with the supernatural, if recent newspaper coverage is any guide. Last year, conservationist Vincent Chow captured headlines at home and abroad by saying he had found evidence of a "Bigfoot" wandering the jungles of Johor state, leaving footprints the size of dinner plates and impressive piles of scatological evidence. "Malaysians may be in for the biggest scientific discovery in human history if the theory of the biodiversity expert Vincent Chow on the origin of the creature called 'big-foot' is proven true," state news agency Bernama declared last June. ^

“For tourists who like the bizarre and unexplained, Malaysia also offers a crocodile-whisperer and until recently a special exhibit of ghoulish human-looking remains, known as 'jenglot', which are vampires according to Malay folklore. Standing up to a metre (3 ft) tall, 'jenglot' appear to have charred skin, long black hair and sharp fangs. They are used in villages as a spiritual guard dog to scare off trespassers. Last year's exhibit drew big crowds to a small museum outside Kuala Lumpur, including a local paranormal investigation group, Seekers, which reportedly put some of the figures in a room under 24-hour camera surveillance to catch any of them moving about. Seekers has yet to announce a breakthrough. ^

“It is also too late to see Malaysia's "Snake King", Ali Khan Samsuddin, who spent 25 years mesmerising scorpions and snakes during live performances. He died last month after being bitten by a king cobra that failed to fall under his spell. But famed crocodile whisperer Cheek Inu, aged in his 70s, is still communicating with the fearsome reptiles, in the frontier state of Sarawak, on Borneo island, though some refuse to listen. "His prowess is not a myth as he has proven his ability in various past incidents," the New Straits Times said in September after Cheek Inu was called in to help capture a crocodile that had eaten a 12-year-old boy swimming in the Sarawak River. Seven years ago, Cheek Inu was credited with coaxing a 5.5 metre (18 ft) crocodile to come out of hiding, crawl up a river bank, turn over and die. Unfortunately, the 12-year-old boy's killer proved to be far more stubborn and remained at large.” ^

Disasters and Terrorism in Southeast Asia Affect Malaysian Tourism

Malaysia tourism was hurt by September 11th, the Bali Bombing and the kidnapping on Sipidan. Angus Whitley of Bloomberg wrote: “Blasts in Bangkok on Dec. 31 killed three and injured 42, while floods last month in Indonesia and Malaysia left more than 300,000 homeless. Disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and the Bali bombings in 2002 cut visitors to the region and Malaysia, home to Mount Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur's Twin Towers, may lose out as holidaymakers pick other destinations, the minister said.

The problem in Bangkok worries me, the problems in Indonesia worry me, the flood that happened to us also worries me,'' Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said. “We are also hit, even though it does not happen to us, because people think it's not a safe place to come. In actual fact, Malaysia is a safe place.'' [Source: Angus Whitley, Bloomberg, January 9, 2007]

In Thailand's southern provinces, north of Malaysia, border attacks that the government blames on Islamic insurgents have killed more than 1,200 people since 2004...Rising crime in Malaysia may put off some visitors. In the first nine months of 2006, there were 170,481 reported crimes, the Royal Malaysia Police said on its Web site. That's higher than the 157,459 crimes reported in the whole of 2005. “It's a great threat to the success of tourism,'' said Norman Nathan, Malaysia-based director of international business development at the Bahrain-Malaysia international trade and investment bureau. "If these things keep happening, we will lose in the long term.'' According to Tengku Adnan, crime against tourists has fallen, though he said tour operators and travel agents have been instructed to advise visitors "not to go to dark alleys'' while in Malaysia.

Foreign Tourists in Malaysia

Most visitors to Malaysia are from Singapore, Thailand, Japan, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, China and the United States. The strongest growth is among South Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese. Mainland Chinese account for 2.4 percent of Malaysia's arrivals in 2006 but have surged since then as economic growth fattens salaries, analysts said. now make up a large portion of foreign tourists.

Bloomberg reported in 2007: “Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Brunei account for the largest visitor numbers to Malaysia, according to the immigration department. All the same, more than half of them never make it out of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, the minister said, missing the country's beaches, rainforests and scuba-diving sites.

On one unpleasant incident involving Chinese tourists, Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The curious incident of the pig's-head meal vouchers and the anthem-singing sit-in offers a cautionary tale about what can happen when the world's most populous nation suddenly sends forth the globe's biggest tour group. At a casino hotel in Malaysia's Genting Highlands last summer, 300-plus members of a Chinese tour group were issued meal coupons bearing somewhat crude illustrations indicating that they ate pork, unlike most people in that predominantly Muslim country.The tourists, however, reportedly interpreted the drawings as a message that Chinese were pigs, leading to a lobby sit-in and an impassioned rendition of China's national anthem. The standoff was broken up only with the arrival of police canine units. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, June 26, 2006]

Arab and Middle Eastern Tourists in Malaysia

More and more Arabs and Middle Easterners have been coming to Malaysia in the summer months to escape the heat in their home countries. Flights from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are often fully booked and there is a mad scramble to come up with enough chick peas and Arabic speakers. Arabs are among the biggest spenders. Local tourist officials refer to them as “higher yield” than even the Japanese tourist. “It’s all on a cash basis. They don’t believe in credit cards. And they stay for a minimum of a week.

Hotel owners are happy to see the Arabs. One hotel manager told the International Herald Tribune, “The proximity, the value for the money, the religious connection and the safety are all huge attractions. It’s fantastic timing, because it covers the low season. Our occupancy will definitely be in 90 percent range.”

Tourism Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen told Benrama, "The Middle East tourists tend to spend more, stay longer and do more shopping compared to other tourists.”"We hope the market will go up. In fact, the ministry is doing lots of promotional programmes for the middle eastern market through advertisements in CNN, websites and the local Arab televisions. "Apart from advertisements, the ministry is using its tourism directors in Dubai, Jeddah and Iran to promote Malaysia's tourism products," she said. Earlier, she launched The Arab Ramadan Festival themed "The Blessings Of Ramadan, 1Malaysia" to be held during Ramadan at i-City in Shah Alam.

In May 2010, Benrama reported: “According to Azizan Noordin, Tourism Malaysia's deputy director-general for planning, the target is to lure 300,000 Arab visitors to Malaysia in 2010, from 284,890 recorded in 2009. The tourism promotion agency is eyeing 85,000 visitors from Saudi Arabia and 30,000 from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as well as 115,000 from Iran. The target audience for the West Asian market included families, young adults, members of royal families and high-end market, special interest groups, honeymooners, corporate groups, business travellers and students, he said ahead of the event. "One of our objectives in Dubai is to promote Malaysia as a top-of-mind tourist destination as well as strengthen our marketing and promotional activities involving players such as travel agents, airlines and corporate sectors," Azizan said. [Source: Benrama, May 3, 2010]

“He reckoned that Arab visitors would continue to be attracted by shopping and scenes of urban life in Malaysia. Family-oriented activities like those available at theme parks such as Genting Highlands, Sunway Lagoon and A'Famosa Resort also generate interest among tourists from this region. "This is because the Arabs are more likely to go on vacation with their families rather than taking a group tour (involving strangers)," he said. Malaysia will also be reinforcing its niche products such as ecotourism, homestay programme, wedding and honeymoon packages, health tourism, wellness and spa, yachting, horse-riding and education tourism, at the ATM 2010. "We're also giving attention to high-end tourists, enticing them with luxury vacations in places like Langkawi and Pangkor," Azizan said, adding that golfing and the Malaysia My Second Home programme were also geared towards this market segment.

Efforts to Woo Middle Eastern Tourists to Malaysia

In July 2005, Chan Tien Hin and Adeline Lee of Bloomberg wrote: “Malaysia's government is paying 500 Arabic-speaking students from the country's International Islamic University to be part-time guides as it steps up efforts to woo Middle Eastern tourists. The students, stationed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and attractions around the country, are part of the government's plan to lure 200,000 visitors from the Middle East this year — 67 percent more than in 2004. "It's a very clever strategy,'' said Leslie Tang, an economist at UOB-Kay Hian Pte in Singapore. "The Middle East feels discriminated against when they go to the West, their usual holiday haunts, so now they're focusing on the East.'' [Source: Chan Tien Hin and Adeline Lee, Bloomberg, July 21, 2005]

“Visitors to Malaysia from such countries as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have risen fourfold since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., Tourism Ministry figures show. They stay twice as long on average and spend almost three times more than their counterparts from other regions. Middle Eastern tourists may bolster hotel occupancy rates as much as 8 percent during the July-to-September peak holiday period, said Ivo Nekvapil, vice president of the Malaysian Association of Hotels.

Khalid Al-Malke, 28, a teacher from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, said friends had recommended Malaysia as a holiday destination. He and his wife were spending the final morning of their 11-day break at Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Towers on July 19. The couple had visited Sunway Lagoon Resort, a water theme park near Kuala Lumpur, and taken fishing trips to Langkawi Island and the Genting Highlands, Khalid said. I love it here: the greenery, beaches,'' he said. “God willing, I will be back.''

Middle Eastern tourists are attracted to Malaysia partly because they feel "more comfortable'' in a predominantly Muslim environment, said Hassan Ebrahim Kamal, head of the properties and investment committee at the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Manama, Bahrain's capital. About 66 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Muslim. Halal food, which is prepared in accordance with Islamic law, is widely available. Many Malaysian women wear a tudung, or traditional headscarf.

Ali Alam, 27, a visitor to Kuala Lumpur from Karachi in Pakistan, said he and his wife Hina Pasha, 26, both architects, chose Malaysia for a belated honeymoon. "A lot of people from Pakistan are coming,'' Ali said on July 15 as the couple browsed in the Petronas Towers shopping mall. "We heard a lot of good things from our friends about the beautiful beaches, the cosmopolitan city, the variety of Asian and Western food. It's the best of both worlds.''

About 126,000 visited in 2004, a 57 percent increase from 2003, according to the Tourism Ministry. Arrivals from Saudi Arabia rose 57 percent to 39,432, while those from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait more than tripled to 21,161 and 12,063 respectively. Middle Easterners stayed nine to 11 days on average in 2004 year and spent 4,709 ringgit ($1,239) each, the Tourism Ministry estimates. Visitors from other regions stayed an average six days and spent 1,888 ringgit each.

At Berjaya Group Bhd.'s Berjaya Times Square Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, about 60 percent of the 700 apartment suites had been booked by Middle Eastern tourists by July 1, said Jess Kaur a hotel spokeswoman. The hotel hired a chef to prepare delicacies from the region and added Arabic translations to hotel notices, she said. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur has added four Arabic-speakers to its reception and restaurant areas, said General Manager Jonas Schuermann. "If you go to London, you feel at home because you speak English, but imagine if you can't speak a word of English and you end up there,'' the Tourism Ministry's Wee said. "The stress level is much higher. We're trying to ease that.''

Six Divers Saved after Going Missing in Malaysia

In June 2012 Agence France-Presse reported: “Six scuba divers who went missing off a Malaysian resort island were rescued when they were spotted by a passing tugboat after spending a night in the sea, a maritime official said. The boat spotted the divers—a Singaporean, a Chinese and four Malaysians—off Tioman island on Malaysia’s east coast, said Syed Mohamad Fuzi Syed Hasan, an official with the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2012 ]

“The Malaysian boat, which was on its way to Indonesia, later informed authorities, who picked up the divers, he said. Another official had said earlier the boat was Indonesian. “Luckily all are safe,” Syed Mohamad Fuzi told AFP, adding that they were uninjured and back on Tioman island. The six, who were aged between 25 and 33 and included two women, were reported missing after going diving off the island. A seventh member of the group, who lost the rest underwater, raised the alarm.

“Syed Mohamad Fuzi said that due to a misunderstanding, the alarm was raised when the six were still diving. When they resurfaced, the boat was gone as it went to get help, and they drifted away with the current. Syed Mohamad Fuzi said the divers were experienced, had inflatable jackets and huddled together throughout the night so no one would become separated from the group. Malaysia’s east coast islands, famed for their corals and marine life, are a popular dive destination and accidents are rare.” Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.