Arab tourists flock to South-East Asia

South-East Asian capitals are enjoying an influx of big-spending tourists from Arab states, who say they feel unwelcome in Europe and the United States as the world turns jittery after the London bombings.

Weary of being treated with suspicion in the West, they say they prefer the region’s bustling cities and sun-kissed beaches, and Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are welcoming the cashed-up visitors with open arms.

Malaysia is drawing on its image as a modern and progressive Muslim country to target about 200 000 Arab tourists this year, a 40% increase on 2004 and far from the modest 21 731 arrivals recorded in 1999.

“In the last few years, geopolitical developments have pushed Malaysia higher up in the rankings of the favourite destinations of tourists from the Middle East,” said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.

“They enjoy the sense of safety and security and the relative peace of Malaysia’s cities,” he said at the launch of the new Arab Square precinct in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Since the September 11 attacks on the US, and more recently the deadly London blasts, life has become difficult for Arab tourists, particularly women who are often dressed in the traditional head-to-toe black chador.

Many also said they are nervous about returning to once-popular destinations such as London and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after both were bombed in July.

“My wife and I came here because it is a Muslim country, and it is safe for us to visit. The people are friendly,” said Bamndar Al-Zahrani (27), from Saudi Arabia, at the launch of Arab Square.

Mariam Al-Zaabi (27), from the United Arab Emirates, said from beneath her chador that the sleepy Malaysian capital is not a particularly exciting destination but that shopping and safety are big attractions.

“I’ll tell you the truth, we’re afraid to go to the United Kingdom and US now because of where we come from. My wife is wearing the hijab and we’ll face trouble over there,” said her 30-year-old husband, Khamis.

“Everybody we know has said it is okay and safe for us.
It’s just not safe to go to the US and Britain anymore,” said 26-year-old Miswaleed Al-Hamade, also from the United Arab Emirates and dressed in flowing black as she pushed her baby in a stroller.

In a bid to keep them happy, authorities have allowed shops to open as late as 2am over the July-September peak season, when Middle East tourists escape sweltering 50-degree-Celsius heat in favour of South-East Asia’s cooler monsoon season.

Mindful that Arab tourists spend an average 4 500 ringgit ($1 194) each on their holiday, almost double that of other visitors, hotels are printing menus in Arabic and hired Middle Eastern chefs to serve up authentic cuisine.

Arab Square, once a dilapidated section of a neighbourhood notorious for drug addicts and prostitutes, has undergone a glitzy revamp and is now shaded by banyan trees and home to an Arab-run hotel, Lebanese restaurants and shops selling Middle Eastern essentials.

Further south in Singapore, the number of Arab tourists has also grown substantially, jumping by 78% to 68 000 in 2004, and edging up another 8,1% in the first half of 2005.

The city-state’s advantage lies in being “perceived as a safe destination with high-quality services”, said Dayne Lim, the Singapore Tourism Board’s manager for South Asia, Middle East and Africa.

Singapore’s sizeable Muslim population also means Arab tourists have no problems with cultural attitudes and understanding of their needs, Lim said, adding that they “feel at home and comfortable”.

In Thailand, arrivals from the Middle East jumped by 42% to 289 571 in 2004, with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait the biggest sources of visitors.

The Thai government plans to promote Bangkok’s Nana district, a colourful area that embraces a red light district as well as the city’s Arab and African quarters, as its “Arabian Street”.

“We all know that people from the Middle East haven’t been able to get into Western countries easily since 9/11,” Apichart Sankary, president of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, told The Nation newspaper. “The situation has sort of encouraged the Arabs to go elsewhere, especially to Asian countries.”

One Middle Eastern tourist in Bangkok, Shady Kamel, told the daily that people from his region have become very aware of political shifts in traditional holiday destinations such as Egypt and Lebanon.

“Middle Eastern guests are also aware of changing attitudes towards them in the US and Europe. This is my first time here, and I feel that Thai people are kind and very helpful, while in European cities like Rome and Moscow you can find a different atmosphere,” he said.

John Koldowski, from the Strategic Intelligence Centre at the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association, said the trend will continue as Arab tourists opt for nations that welcome them rather than view them with suspicion.

“No doubt about it. Due to the fragile nature of the world today ... it is not as easy for them to move around, particularly with visa restrictions,” he said.

“If they are travelling with the entire family, then there are concerns about—not being racially targeted—but more of being uncomfortable, just little hassles.”

“There are also other concerns, like can I get the stuff that I’m used to, is the food going to be halal, can I go to the mosque. There are many options now, for them not to suffer potential hassles.”—AFP

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