A construction site in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia yesterday unveiled a slew of incentives to woo skilled foreign workers and pledged to spend $72 billion on economic development and other programmes. Image Credit: AP

On learning that an advertisement campaign for Malaysia collected 35 international awards, you might wonder how many tourists have visited the country.

One million? Five million? Maybe 10 million?

The answer: 23.65 million tourists visited Malaysia last year alone.

Malaysia's tourist industry has been described as one of the great success stories in the modern history of the relatively young Asian state, which today celebrates 53 years of independence from Britain.

Malaysia, according to the World Tourism Organisation barometer, made it into the top 10 countries in terms of international tourist arrivals in 2009 — a challenging year for many countries due to various crises such as the economic slowdown and H1N1 influenza.

In the Asian market, Malaysia ranked second after China in terms of tourist arrivals. Tourism in Asian countries is only behind export industries in generating income for them. Tourist receipts reached 53.37 billion ringgit (Dh62.41 billion) in 2009, up from 8.5 billion ringgit in 1998. Malaysia's tourism campaign helped the country to achieve its target before the end of the year.

The government had set a goal of 19 million international tourist arrivals in 2009, but that target was already achieved by October of the same year. By the end of the year, the figure had reached 23.65 million tourists.

Since its development by an agency in 1999, the "Malaysia: Truly Asia" media campaign — which has been continually updated and refreshed in subsequent years — has earned more awards for the country than any other tourism campaign in the history of advertising.

The campaign focuses on the activities that the country offers visitors. Images of Malaysian people and the natural beauty of the country are matched with slogans such as "multi-cultural harmony", "king of fruits", "shoppers' paradise", "one the of the world's best dive sites", and "130 million-year-old rainforest".

Apart from its rainforests, Malaysia offers marine parks, watersports activities, pristine beaches, modern infrastructure and shopping centres, several festivals and various cuisines, such as Malay, Chinese and Indian.

Malaysia prides itself on having listed Unesco World Heritage sites, such as Gunung Mulu National Park, Kinabalu Park, and the historical sites of Georgetown and Malacca. The country's multi-racial, multi-cultural nature and high standards of hospitality make it easy for tourists "to blend in", as a friend put it.

Infrastructure

The availability of excellent infrastructure and facilities has also made the nation a good business centre in a vibrant region. It is a popular destination for meetings, conventions and exhibitions.

In the world of business, Malaysia has taken giant strides to become a major global hub for Islamic finance. The government realises the importance of continuing to promote tourism as one of the strategic growth sectors that can help fuel the economy and create employment for the population of 27 million, officials say.

The target is to provide 2.7 million jobs in the tourism industry by 2015. Under the country's tenth plan for the period 2011-2015, the government is trying to triple tourist arrivals and keep Malaysia in the top 10 in terms of global tourism receipts.

Malaysia's successful experience in using advertising to boost tourism's contribution to the economy has served as a lesson to some Arab countries.

Egypt, one of the major tourist destinations in the world, has in the past few years run a television campaign under the slogan "Egypt: the house is yours" — a reference to an Arab welcome to guests and visitors.

Tourism is one of the key sectors of Egypt's economy. However, its revenues have not reached the same level as Malaysia's, as yet. The target for this year, according to Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah, is to increase Egypt's tourism receipts to $11.5 billion.