Malaysia profits from boom in short-stay long-haul tourism

British visitors look to the Far East for good-value family holidays

Malaysia is taking centre stage as the Far East destination to visit after years in the doldrums. Arrival figures for British tourists for January to August this year, compiled by Tourism Malaysia, have already reached 190,000 - an increase of 50,000 on the total for the whole of last year.

Malaysia is taking centre stage as the Far East destination to visit after years in the doldrums. Arrival figures for British tourists for January to August this year, compiled by Tourism Malaysia, have already reached 190,000 - an increase of 50,000 on the total for the whole of last year.

The country appears to be successfully shaking off its negative image as inefficient, dull and environmentally unsound with the help of sleek hotels, easy rainforest trails and interesting nature retreats.

The rise in visitor figures is partly accounted for by business travellers. But travel agents selling Malaysia are reporting a sharp rise in demand from short-stay, long-haul visitors on a family holiday, who have taken over from the frontier backpackers.

"Malaysia and Thailand are now largely perceived as tame destinations by backpackers," said Steve Griffiths from Bridge The World travel agents. "What's new is the family sector, which is increasingly choosing long-haul over the Mediterranean." The rigours of taking small children on gruelling 13-hour flights are compensated for by competitive pricing, a safe environment and the promise of tropical exotica.

Families also like the good exchange rates, food to rival Singapore, top-class resort hotels such as the Shangri-La in Penang, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Damai Beach near Kuching in Sarawak and a spread of locations on the island resort of Langkawi. There are also signs, according to Tourism Malaysia, that the country is becoming a popular honeymoon spot.

"It's become a good quality product," said Kate Calvert, editor of Family Travel. "Malaysia is a safe destination for children - and it's a big bonus not having to get them to take malaria tablets. In recent years there has been an overall increase in long-haul flights, with a corresponding drop in expense."

The clincher is the flexibility of the current market. "Fares offered by main carriers, Malaysia Airlines, British Airways and Qantas, can work out as perfect packages," said Griffiths. "For as little as £420 you get the flight and two to four nights in a Langkawi or Penang hotel.'' He recommends that travellers also visit the east coast's Perhentian Islands. "They get the best of both worlds that way: the premier-class hotel and the homespun," he said.

Malaysian tourism has also been helped by the fact that its large neighbour, Indonesia, has suffered from political instability, leading to other Far East destinations taking its market share. There is also a specialist market in Malaysia, supported by tour operators such as Magic of the Orient, which offers tailor-made trips, such as its six-day Wildlife in Sabah.

"There is definitely more interest," said Tony Champion of Magic of the Orient. "The secret's out that areas like the Kinabatangan river and the Danum Valley in Sabah are among the top spots to see wildlife in Asia.

"The real success story is Langkawi. The amount of promotion it has put in has paid off. It's come from nowhere in seven years and other places in the country are starting to see the benefits, too."

Charles de Ledesma is the co-author of the 'Rough Guide to Southeast Asia' (first edition) and the 'Rough Guide to Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei' (third edition), both published last week.

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