Gaya Travel Magazine recently sat down with the handsome and sharp Datuk Rashidi Hasbullah (Deputy Secretary General of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture Malaysia) to get his valuable opinion on Malaysia’s rising costs, new policies, homestay programme and ASEAN.
Talking about challenges in the tourism industry, of course there will be since the industry is sensitive, yet resilient. The industry is stable because we have many great products. If you notice our arrival every year, you can see that generally there is increase in terms of arrivals and tourism receipts. Despite many challenges, Malaysia is still able to cope. For example, like last year, when we launched Visit Malaysia Year 2014, we had two big incidents involving MH370 and MH17. We thought it would be difficult to get arrivals at that time but we soldiered on. Due to our promotional efforts, we continue to receive tourists because people already know Malaysia and appreciate its diverse tourism products and attractions. Despite the challenges, we still managed to receive 27.4 million tourists in 2014 as compared to 25.4 million in 2013, representing 8% increase. This is indeed a great achievement for Malaysia. Besides that, many perceived that the slide of our currency causes our industry to drop. Instead, the situation only makes our country more attractive to foreign tourists since things become cheaper for them. And we even received news that during Singapore’s Independence Day, many Singaporeans flooded Malaysia in record numbers.
In terms of domestic tourism, there is no change because Malaysia uses its own currency, the Ringgit, to sell products. So even when the Ringgit drops, our charges remain the same. Malaysians can still enjoy travelling in the country. That’s why this year we are promoting the domestic tourism campaign called Cuti-Cuti Malaysia with the theme ‘Dekat Je‘(‘It’s closer than you think’) to encourage locals to travel locally. Moreover, the fall of Ringgit discourages Malaysians to travel abroad as it becomes costlier.
In terms of policies, is there any new policy that is being introduced by the government to further assist the industry?
We have introduced the Malaysia Tourism Transformation Plan in 2010 (MTTP), a ten-year programme, which targets that by 2020, Malaysia will receive 36 million with RM168 billion tourism receipts. By introducing the MTTP, we have identified many initiatives and campaigns in order to add value to the MTTP programme. For example, in 2014, it was Visit Malaysia Year; 2015, Malaysia Year of Festivals and Dekat Je; 2018 will be Malaysia Year of Care (a collaboration with the Malaysian Health Tourism Council) to boost the medical tourism; and Visit Malaysia Year 2020.
We are also in the process of reviewing our ecotourism master plan, first introduced in 1996, since our country is rich in biodiversity. The master plan covers 10 years, with the next decade starting from the end of 2015 to 2025. In 1996, we had only 48 ecotourism sites but now, we realised that the number is larger and we need to accurately take stock of them.
Ecotourism has huge potential – how much benefit do you see that you can get from promoting ecotourism? Can you put it in numbers, Datuk?
Actually during our survey for ecotourism, out of 27.4 million arrival last year, 8% of them came here for ecotourism. That’s a lot. So we want to promote ecotourism further. Because our country is still 60% green. We have excellent ecotourism sites, both in East and West Malaysia, like jungles and marine parks. Tourists from Japan, Australia and Europe love to come to these places.
Do you remember the time when you represented Malaysia to receive an award from the UN for our homestay programme?
Yes. In fact, homestay is part of ecotourism. Our homestay programme is very well-known in the world now. When people talk about homestay, they talk about Malaysia. We started the homestay programme back in 1986 under the programme called ‘Anak Angkat’ (‘Foster Child’) as it initially involved students who came here to live with local families to learn about the Malaysia lifestyle and culture. We noticed that the foreign students loved it and immediately thought that it might be interesting for tourists as well. So, we officially adopted it in the 1995 and called it the Homestay Programme. We received positive response from tourists coming from Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea. I think we started to promote homestay vigorously in 2008 or 2009. In 2012, our Malaysia Homestay Experience Program won the UNWTO Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance.
Do you get responses from other nations that would like to learn about the homestay programme?
Yes. In fact, many of them came to Malaysia specifically to ask about it. I’ve received a visit from representatives of Colombia government to ask about the programme. Then, our government developed the Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme that allows other countries to come to Malaysia and learn from us. So we designed a specific MTTP course for the Colombian government to learn about the homestay programme. We also received inquiries from Kenya, Georgia and the Philippines. They even invited us to their homestay seminars and courses to give talk.
Since we won the award, ASEAN countries want us to lead and come up with homestay standards for the ASEAN countries. We had created it and presented it during the ASEAN Tourism Forum last year in Kuching. It has been agreed by the ASEAN community and now, we are in the process of implementing them. This would be a good initiative from Malaysia, so in the future, when you visit other countries, you will find homestays similar to the ones in Malaysia in terms of standards. The uniqueness of Malaysian homestays lies in the experience: the participants will live with their host, follow the lifestyle, be involved with the activities and enjoy the village atmosphere. Currently, we have 311 villages participating in the homestay programme.
Is there any new policy that will be introduced specifically for homestay, Datuk?
These days, we notice that more tourists seek the village experience without having to compromise on their privacy and comfort. They prefer to live in a separate home. So we introduced another segment called ‘Kampungstay’ programme that allows tourists to obtain the rich village experience but with a bit more privacy – instead of staying with the host family under one roof, they have separate accommodations that is close to the host family’s home. Right now, we have registered only a few homestay operators under this segment since we haven’t officially launched the programme. One good example of ‘Kampungstay’ operator is Desa Murni, Pahang.
In terms of ASEAN, Datuk, how do you see we benefit from them? Where do we fit in the scheme of things?
ASEAN community is indeed a very good platform to work with. And so far, I think, Malaysia is a leading country when it comes to tourism, besides Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, which have excellent tourism industry as well. But definitely, all countries are now looking at Malaysia because we have been performing from the beginning. Now we can see the trend that most tourists, especially the long haul ones, want to make the most of their travelling. They want to visit not only one country but more, at least two countries. That’s why in ASEAN is introducing multi-destination packages because we want to sell ASEAN as a single destination. There are different packages offered by ASEANTA including the Heritage Package (3-2-1: 3 Places, 2 Countries, 1 Package – Penang, Melaka, Borobudur), Ecotourism Package, Sightseeing Package, and River Cruise Package (Thailand, Vietnam, Laos).
One last question Datuk, to those who are interested to join the tourism industry, what would your advice be?
Coming from the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, we encourage students, especially those in the tourism and hospitality fields, they must continue their career in the respective fields that they study. I notice that many students don’t join the industry once they graduated. The tourism industry is growing very fast and in order to become a tourism country, we need people who love tourism and have the expertise, as the way for the country to ‘Think Tourism, Act Tourism’. Sadly we are depending a lot on foreign workers right now, for example foreign spa therapists. Tourism students need to be mentally ready and willing to work long hours, which is the nature of the job.