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Image of Malaysia as a Destination-A Review

Badaruddin Mohamed
School of Housing, Building & Planning
Universiti Sains Malaysia

1bada@usm.my

Abstract

Tourist perception of a place influences travelers whether or not to visit a destination.    Given today’s uncertainties within the tourism world in the wake of various terrorist attacks and diseases, the role of image in influencing travel flow is more crucial.  This paper revisits promotional strategies carried out by Malaysia through the past few decades.  It will also discuss key findings of past studies that tried to unveil perceptions of the global tourists of Malaysia.  A study in 1993 in Japan showed that Malaysia was struggling to position a correct image overseas, while in a more recent study, the country seems manages to find more effective and successful theme for the global market.

Keywords:  perception, image, promotion, positioning, marketing

1.  Introduction

The Sipadan hostage taking, the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the Bali and Jakarta Bombings, the war on Iraq and the SARS outbreak at the end of 2002 through the middle part of 2003, among other things, have left a dent on the regional tourism sector. However, among the most recent disasters mentioned above, the outbreak of SARS has been the worst problem to hit the Asia-Pacific travel industry.  As stressed by Frangialli, the secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, the region had to engage in crisis management to quickly ensure prospective tourists that it is a safe destination (NST, June 19, 2003).  In the case of Bali, despite reports that the island is making a come back into the global tourism map, it certainly takes years before the island can really convince its traditional markets, like Australians, Japanese and Singaporeans, that the island is really the place to visit.

Despite the fact that the majority of the countries situated in the Southeast Asian region are generally safe, travelers often opt for ‘safer’ destinations.  The question here is when this region is no longer perceived to be ‘safe’, then where can tourists go?  While Southeast Asian governments continue to campaign that it is safe to travel in this region, travel market continues to take a cautious approach, and generally prefer to stay home or travel domestically.  One of the underlying factors that raise the fear of traveling is the perception that the whole region is in trouble.

The decision to travel (or not to travel) to a particular destination is linked to our perception of that destination, thus an examination of that perception process may help us understand it and how we can change an individual’s perception of a destination in order to increase the likelihood of that individual’s visiting the destination (Mill and Morrison, 1985).  As suggested by the WTO (1983), the future demand of world travelers would be influenced by the growth in per capita income and major demographic changes in origin countries, foreign exchange rates, standard of living in destination countries and familiarity with the destinations.  Familiarity, in today’s context, can be a positive mental association, or perhaps the otherwise.  Kotler, Haider and Rein (1993) define a place image as the sum of beliefs, ideas, impressions that people have of a place.  Image presents a simplification of a large number of associations and pieces of information connected to a place.  Seaton and Bennett (1996) explain that destinations are both physical entities and socio-cultural entities and their tourism image is influenced deliberately by the marketing efforts of the authorities and tourism firms (induces sources) and by personal experience of consumers, word of mouth, history, the media and so on (organic sources).  This brief paper evaluates changes in Malaysia’s global tourism image positioning and how Malaysia has been perceived as a destination. The discussion of this paper is mainly based on research and surveys conducted in Japan, as well as in Malaysia during an IRPA research (2001-2003).

2.  Tourism Images of Malaysia

Malaysia faces stiff competition from a number of its regional neighbors that also regard tourism as an important sector to their economy.   Fighting for a small piece of the pie, competition especially comes from the neighboring ASEAN nations, who themselves are aggressively attracting tourists to their shores.  Today, China, Vietnam and Laos also strongly lure tourists into their countries with abundant heritage products.  Situated in the same geographical region, Malaysia shares similarities with other ASEAN nations in term of natural resources, tourism infrastructure, culture, traditions and hospitality.  While these similarities can be seen as an advantage, they serve more as a handicap to Malaysia.  As Goodall (1988) noted, ‘tourism products, especially within a given holiday type such as ‘sun, sea and sand’ are relatively substitutable’.  It creates a sense of similarity as well as competition. This is especially true with the introduction of ‘Six in One’ concept by the Asean leaders when they inaugurated the Visit Asean Year 1992.  Emerging as a new a tourist destination, a growingly popular Malaysia in the 70s started as ‘A Tropical Paradise’, only to realized that tourists are more interested in going to the more established Hawaii and Bali.

In its efforts to run away from the neighbors, Malaysian often alters its tourism image (s) promoted abroad.  During the early spread of sex related diseases, like AIDS, the country was once promoted as ‘a clean destination’.  This strategy was to attract an emerging number of regional markets that visit nearby 3 Ss-Sun, Sea and Sex destinations like Phuket, Bali and Pattaya and some destinations in the Phillipines.  This ‘Clean Destination’ approach did not really leave an impact on the markets as they continued to flock the 3 Ss destinations!  For the 1990 Visit Malaysia Year (VMY90), Malaysia started to sell the vast natural resources that the country has.  Slogans like ‘To know Malaysia is to love Malaysia’ and ‘You Will Be Fascinated’ were used extensively both domestically and internationally.  Selling nature seems did the magic, as it opened various new products like nature tourism, adventure tourism, agrotourism, etc.  Tourism brochures are now much greener.  Waterfalls, lakes and jungle are brought to the front pages. 

The success of this campaign had resulted 7.45 million of tourist arrivals.  In the early 90s, while continuing the success trail of marketing its nature, Malaysia continued to diversify its products (the promoted images), and started to readjust its marketing, hoping to receive a larger number of travelers.  Despite the fact that selling nature was a success, Malaysia could not resist the temptation of informing the world that we do have everything!  As stated by the former Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism, ‘ Diversifying the tourism base, which would include reducing its dependence on a narrow range of activities and markets, would be one the trusts of tourism in the next ten years.   This strategy would be to develop Malaysia as a shopping, sports, convention center, and a special interest destination, therefore catering to a wide range of tourist interests (Bernama News Daily, Oct 19, 1991). 

Mid nineties saw Malaysia embarked in ‘A Shopping Paradise’ drive, selling itself as a value-for-money destination, after realizing that shopping is one of the main activities that generate real income into the economy.   More recently, Tourism Malaysia (the country’s promotion arm) carried out a promotional blitz on CNN repackaging the country as a country of nature and culture, under the theme ‘Truly Asia’.  It, however, still projects Malaysia as a destination of everything, a friendly, and a moderate Islamic nation.  Today, Malaysia seems to shift from tourism in the rural settings to new urban-based tourism concepts like Health Tourism and Sports Tourism.  Grand landmarks like the Petronas Twin Towers, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), the international Formula One Grand Prix circuit in Sepang, LIMA exhibition, and the new KL Sentral railway station, to name a few, are parts of the government’s aspiration to mark Malaysia in the global tourism map. Among government-backed world-class events are the Grand Prix Formula One, International Go-Kart Race, Speedboat Race, Le Tour de Langkawi, Eco Borneo Challenge, Kinabalu International Run and Motorized Para glider Tour of Malaysia.

3.  Perceived Image of Malaysia

Becoming a recognized destination presents a difficult marketing challenge and to maintain a positive image in the minds of visitors may be even more difficult since alternative and competing destinations are always pushing the limits of market competition to maintain or capture a significant portion of the visitor market (Uysal, Chen and Williams, 2000).  As discussed above, successive changes of images promoted by Malaysia can both enhance its image(s) as well as create confusion within the tourist market.   As most tourists travel within a short period with specific interests and things to do, presenting them with a mixture of images can be perplexing.    Previous studies showed that Malaysia’s tourism image abroad was rather unclear compared to its neighbors especially Thailand and Indonesia (Badaruddin, 1994). 

Table 1 Attractiveness Indexes of Four Asean Nations

Country

Attributes

 

DOI

 

Thailand

 

AI

 

Indonesia

 

AI

 

Malaysia

 

AI

 

Singapore

 

AI

 

Climatic condition

3.94

3.26

12.84

3.43

14

3.45

13.59

3.63

14.3

Beach

4.28

3.96

16.95

4.12

7.6

3.83

16.39

2.9

12.4

Mountains, high plains, Tropical forest

3.03

2.84

8.605

3.15

9.5

3.22

9.75

2.69

8.15

Village sights

2.81

3.25

9.133

3.27

9.2

3.26

9.161

2.64

7.42

Historical relics

4.25

4.14

17.6

4.11

17

3.48

14.79

2.89

12.3

Traditional Events (fiesta, etc)

3.78

3.88

14.67

3.87

15

3.35

12.66

3

11.3

Night life and sightseeing

4.22

3.82

16.12

3.34

14

3.22

13.59

4.2

17.7

Accommodation Facilities

4.62

3.89

17.97

3.79

18

3.55

16.4

4.48

20.7

Sports and recreation

4.08

3.41

13.91

3.63

15

3.31

13.5

3.7

15.1

Transportation

3.92

2.75

10.78

2.78

11

3.02

11.84

4.18

16.4

Safety

4.4

2.71

11.92

2.93

13

3.07

13.51

4.08

18

Sanitation

4.31

2.39

10.3

2.68

11

2.85

12.28

3.92

16.9

Foods

3.78

3.28

12.4

3.15

12

3.19

12.06

4.01

15.2

Hospitality of the people

3.48

3.18

11.07

3.06

11

3.14

10.93

3.78

13.2

Communication (in Japanese)

3.6

2.96

10.66

2.9

10

3.01

10.84

3.48

12.5

Similarity to Japan

2.92

3.03

8.848

2.85

8.3

2.94

8.585

3.41

9.96

Total Attributes' Average

61.42

52.75

203.8

53.06

205

51.89

199.9

56.99

222

Note:  n=120

AI Attractiveness Index  DOI=Degree of Importance Source:  Badaruddin Mohamed (1994)

Table 1 presents the finding of a survey conducted among 400 Japanese travel agencies that compared perceived tourism image of Malaysia to its Asean neighbors namely Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.  A total of 120 agencies responded to the survey, which revealed that the respondents highly regarded climatic condition, beach, historical relics, nightlife and city sightseeing, accommodation, sports and recreational facilities and sanitation.  The study found that Singapore (then) was the favorite destination among the powerful Japanese travel agencies.  Sadly, Malaysia lied at fourth as the preferred or recommended destination.  Malaysia’s tourism attributes were regarded as ‘slightly above average’, without any elements that can be considered strong.  This study also found that contributing factors to the diluting of Malaysia’s international tourism image abroad are (i) Conflicting images with its neighboring countries;  (ii) Malaysia is promoting ever-changing images; (iii) Many states in Malaysia (for instance Sarawak) conduct their own image marketing, some images are different from the theme set by the Federal government. 

Table 2 Attributes Associated with the Image of Malaysia

Image of Malaysia

Number of Respondents

%

Exotic foods

30

19.87

Heritage and historical buildings

27

17.88

Modern buildings

27

17.88

Islamic country

26

17.22

Shopping paradise

15

9.93

Culture of the people

8

5.30

Village

5

3.31

Hospitable people

5

3.31

Multimedia Super Corridor

4

2.65

Mountain and jungle

2

1.32

Sun, sand and sea

1

0.66

Discos and night life

1

0.66

Total

151

100.00

Source:  Badaruddin Mohamed (2002)

As a part of a long term IRPA study (2001 through 2003), visitors to Malaysia, among other things, are asked to evaluate the quality of tourist resources found in this country. An online survey was also conducted at the same time.  The main purpose of the online survey was to understand traveling behavior of the general international market and to gauge their perceptions of Malaysia, especially those who had been to Malaysia.  In brief, the study discovered that respondents met in Malaysia obtained information about Malaysia through friends and relatives (36.3%) were the biggest, followed by from travel guides (22.2%) and travel agencies (12.6%).  The survey also found that Malaysia is now associated with ‘modern buildings’, exotic foods, heritage and historical buildings, an Islamic country, and a shopping haven (Table 1).  These associations reflect the success of the continuous efforts by governments to project images of the country.  However, whether these images are really attractive is another issue to discuss. 

Table 3 Evaluations of Tourist Facilities and Resources in Malaysia

     Tourism Elements

Mean

Std.

 

Deviation

Hospitality of the people

4.39

0.79

Good food and beverages

4.35

0.93

Nature and landscape

4.34

0.66

Communication facilities

4.26

0.71

Shopping and entertainment facilities

4.16

0.77

Transportation system

4.15

0.71

Traditional events and locals lifestyle

4.14

0.80

Services for tourists

4.08

0.67

Village and country sights

4.06

0.76

Resort facilities

4.03

0.74

Price of goods

4.00

0.63

Historical and heritage relics

3.96

0.75

Availability adventurous activities

3.92

0.60

Information quality and availability

3.85

0.73

Basic amenities

3.73

1.01

Level of cleanliness

3.50

0.97

Amusement and theme parks

2.91

1.03

Overall evaluation on Malaysia

4.34

0.59

         Note:   Based on the Likert Scale of 5 where 5 is excellent

As shown in Table 3, the survey revealed that the respondents regarded the ‘hospitality of the people’, food and beverages, nature and landscape, communication, shopping and entertainment facilities as the excellent products of the Malaysian tourism.  They, however, were not particularly impressed with the basic amenities, level of cleanliness and the amusement or theme parks found in this country.

4.  Concluding Remarks

Forecasts by the World Travel and Tourism Council (1995) for the Asia Pacific region revealed that by the year 2005, travel and tourism would generate US$1.9 trillion in gross output, accounting for 11.6% of GDP.  The sector is also expected to create an additional 105 million new jobs.  WTO (2000), in its Tourism 2020 Vision study, predicts that by 2020, Asia, in particular East Asia and the Pacific, will become the second-most visited region of the world and with South Asia, will have one of the highest rates of growth in tourism arrivals and receipts.  Receipts from international tourism (excluding transport) are projected to increase more than fivefold between 1995 and 2020 to reach US$2 trillion.  Realizing this, Malaysia continues to appreciate tourism as a potential sector that creates job and business opportunities. The tourism sector is expected to assume a greater role in simulating the economic growth during the Eight Malaysia Plan (8MP) period and have been allocated RM1 Billion to develop various programs.   However, this can only be realized if more international tourists, especially repeat visitors, continue to vacation in this country.

      In developing itself into a vibrant destination, however, Malaysia struggles to position it among more established countries that share identical cultures, heritage and natural environment.  Increase in budgetary allocations for clear, strategically focused, influential marketing and promotion must accompany the conservation and development of new tourist products.

      Studies suggest that the present move to enhance nature-based tourism should be continued, especially in term of providing facilities for adventure tourism.  At the same time, restraint should be exercised on the building of new theme parks and of similar projects, as they are found to be not an important attraction to the international travelers to this region (Badaruddin, Lee and Nikmatul, 2002).  Recent findings also suggest that theme parks are something of the past and are struggling for their survival in many countries worldwide.

      While the development of landmarks such as the KLIA and the world’s tallest (until September 2003) Petronas Twin Towers, helped establishing Malaysia in the global tourism, it is equally important for Malaysia to pay special attention to the level of quality and cleanliness of basic amenities for tourists such as toilets, food stalls, bus stations and kiosks which are part and parcel of tourism products.  In order to be a developed destination, Malaysia needs to provide a higher class of facilities, up to the standard of those found in developed countries.  Malaysia is moving in the right direction in terms of image consolidation and enhancement; however, further refinement and clever positioning are now vital to ensure continuous or sustainable inflow of ‘quality’ tourists into the country.

Acknowledgement

The authors would like to extend appreciations to the Intensive Research Priority Area (IRPA) Long Term Research Grant from Universiti Sains Malaysia, which makes this research and presentation possible. 

REFERENCE

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