Malaysian tour operator Xiao Zhong, third from right, with Chinese tourists on a Sabah beach last year. Image courtesy of Xiao Zhong.

Chinese visitors stay away after flight disappearance and recent kidnapping

Malaysian tour guides like Xiao Zhong  thought 2014 would be their most prosperous year yet. Chinese tourists had been coming in droves to companies like his as the Southeast Asian nation branded itself as an affordable and quieter alternative to neighboring vacation hotspots. Nearly every night, Xiao would take boatloads of Chinese visitors on sunset cruises along Sabah island’s most picturesque rivers, as snub nosed monkeys ambled on the nearby shore, before the glow of fireflies rivaled that of the clear, starlit skies.

But now, many Chinese tourists are avoiding that once idyllic setting at all costs. Xiao readily admits that their reaction is understandable. The disappearance of flight MH370 last month — filled mostly with the type of Chinese passengers who typically hired guides like Xiao — coupled with the recent kidnapping of  a Shanghai tourist at an eastern Sabah resort, have resulted in a flurry of cancelations by customers fearing the same ill fate.

Xiao says he has lost 70 percent of his business since those tragic events. Those figures were preceded by very promising trends — a 32.6 percent increase in Chinese visitors in 2013, and 15 percent annual rises for several years before that, making Middle Kingdom guests the third biggest and fastest growing demographic to visit Malaysia. The country’s tourism industry hoped to capitalize on that momentum in 2014 by branding it Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) and drawing two million more Chinese tourists. Now, the industry is struggling to make a profit.

Businesses like Xiao’s are especially hard hit. Ninety percent of his customers are Chinese.

“It’s a big problem, especially for tour groups in Sabah,” he says, adding that the government must step up the island’s security measures to prevent future kidnappings. If such changes are made, he feels that many Chinese tourists will return to at least parts of the island, eventually. “I still have some Chinese tourists coming. Many of them understand our country’s problems, but are still having a very nice time.”

Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism could not be reached for comment before press time. The manager of Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board’s Guangzhou office told Asian Correspondent that the number of Chinese traveling to Malaysia have dropped since the MH370 disappearance, the Sabah kidnapping, and the ensuing strained relations between both nations.

“There has at least been a little bit of a drop, although we’re not sure how much, because we have not processed final figures from the customs departments yet. There’s also been fewer Malaysians coming to China in recent weeks,” the promotions manager, who refused to give her name, says.

The ebb in those totals is not only due to safety concerns, but also an increasingly heated rhetoric between the countries’ leaders, public figures, and social media users. The PRC has been critical of Malaysia’s search efforts for MH370, and Chinese celebrities have encouraged boycotts of the Southeast Asian nation on social networks like Weibo and WeChat. Meanwhile, a recent Reuters article said Malaysians think, “China’s reaction is increasingly… high-handed, excessively harsh and hypocritical as Kuala Lumpur grapples with what it sees as an unprecedented crisis,” before quoting a Facebook post by Malaysian user Pei Ling Gan that read: “Do they think they are the only ones grieving over the missing plane?”

Xiao says that he hopes those tempers will ease over time, especially after Malaysia’s coast guard steps up its security efforts. Billy Hammond
, director of 
Borneo Dream Travel & Tours in Sabah, agreed, before adding that stricter policies and practices are needed to protect guests from kidnappers. He specifically takes issue with lax security inspections, which let many local resorts skimp on needed security measures or even employ illegal workers who go on to plan abductions, right under the owners’ noses.

“The government should not worry about how well connected the resort owner is… Owners should realize that the Ministry of Tourism is in control, not the other way around,” Hammond says of the lenient practices that have caused safety standards to sag in the local tourism industry.

Xiao agrees with that sentiment, but adds that few measures will be able to salvage the immediate tourism prospects in Semprona, the east coast city where gunmen stormed a reef resort and kidnapped Gao Huayun, a 29-year-old visitor from Shanghai. He adds that Malaysia shouldn’t rely on frantic advertising to draw its Chinese clientele back, at the risk of seeming insensitive or desperate, and alienating those esteemed potential guests all the more.

“I believe that Chinese tourists will come back to Kota Kinabalu and other parts of the island eventually. But we shouldn’t use ads to convince them,” Xiao says. “What we need to do is provide them with a safe destination, give them good service and take them to beautiful sites. Then they will let their friends know.”

Hammond agrees, adding: “Tourism will always struggle when comes to bad news. The Government Departments need to be transparent and come down hard on those who still feel it is OK to go against Government guidelines and rules. This gives confidence to the visiting guests.”