On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Trailing badly in bid for Chinese tourists

Various reasons have been cited why Chinese tourists have been shunning Malaysia but one clear factor must be the order from the China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) to its travel agents to cancel group tours to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

That directive hurt Singapore as well. The island republic's number of Chinese tourists fell to 352,000 in the first six months of this year but that was only a 10% drop, which isn't as bad as that for Malaysia.

One area of unhappiness, which is being talked about among Chinese visitors, are reports of Chinese tourists being robbed of their passports and female tourists being hassled at Immigration because of suspicions that they might be involved in prostitution.

MCA public services and complaints department chief Datuk Michael Chong said he had received many complaints from bona fide Chinese visitors, including investors, that they had encountered such difficulties at KL International Airport.

He said one businessman, regarded as one of the richest men in China, had to wait until 5am before he was allowed to enter Malaysia although he had the proper travelling documents including a visa.

Chong said the businessman, who has an office in Kuala Lumpur, had his Malaysian visa on an old passport, which he carried along, but that did not satisfy the Immigration officer. The man was allowed in after some intervention from senior Immigration officers.

But the "loss of face" for the Chinese investor infuriated him so much that he threatened to close down his KL office, which would have meant retrenchment for the Malaysian staff. But Chong managed to calm him down.

That is not all. I have personally heard of a Chinese shipper, with a branch office here, whose 60-year-old wife was denied entry because of some technical problems relating to her visa. The matter was eventually brought up to a Cabinet minister.

To be fair to Immigration, rules are rules. If the officers have reasons to be suspicious, then they must be allowed to exercise their discretion to turn away foreign visitors, irrespective of their nationality.

But Immigration must be sensitive to such complaints, especially from genuine tourists. We should not give the perception, no matter how small, that Chinese tourists are discriminated against.

A few years back, I accompanied then Deputy Tourism Minister Datuk Dr Ng Yen Yen on her tourism promotion trips. She decided to take along a senior Immigration officer to allow him to hear directly the problems faced by Chinese tour agents.

It was an eye-opener for the officer. More interestingly, he was surprised at the development in Chinese cities. Talking to him, the impression I had was that he thought Kuala Lumpur was ahead of these cities.

The situation has improved much but more needs to be done. In fact, there should be more consistency and better coordination between the Tourism Ministry and the Home Ministry, especially the Immigration department.

Bad press such as the recent case in Genting Highlands where Chinese tourists staged a sit-in after they discovered hotel workers had drawn pigs on their pass cards used for restaurants, and the murder of Chinese students in Malaysia certainly did not help.

These are isolated cases, no doubt, but we need to tackle them as every country is fighting hard for the tourist dollar. The competition is no longer from Asian countries but also from Europe and the United States.

In the past, this region attracted many Chinese tourists but as they become richer, they have turned to Europe and the US. In Australia, entertainers from Hong Kong and Taiwan have become major acts in theatres to cater to these Chinese arrivals.

Malaysia needs to review its strategy to win these Chinese tourists and with their interest in eco-tourism, Malaysia will continue to enjoy certain advantages.

Tourists from the southern Chinese cities should be encouraged to visit Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor and Malacca, because many Malaysians speak in Hokkien and Cantonese, which should make them feel at home.

Tourism Minister Datuk Dr Michael Toyad and his deputy Zahid have worked hard but it will help tremendously if a Chinese-speaking deputy minister is appointed in the next Cabinet reshuffle. The personal touch, coupled with the required social skills, is crucial in doing business in China.