Eastern Shores: Middle Eastern Tourism in Malaysia
July 11, 2013
Some look at the Middle East’s turmoil this summer and see a mess; Malaysia’s leaders look and see an opportunity.
In 2011, Malaysia attracted over 402,000 tourists from the Middle East and North Africa, a three-fold increase from a decade ago. 139,617 Iranian tourists visited Malaysia, as well as 87,693 Saudis. Promotional campaigns by Tourism Malaysia brand the country as a tropical paradise that blends modernity and Islamic values, and the government even created an Islamic Tourism Centre to boost the country’s ability to meet the needs, desires, and expectations of Islamically-oriented tourists.
Events are conspiring in the Malaysians’ favor, as the Arab Spring has reinforced the impetus for wealthy Gulf travelers to look east. This summer, Malaysian tourism is booming as many Arab families favor it as a safer destination than traditional summer spots such as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and even Turkey.
Growing tourism both reflects and contributes to growing ties between the two regions. Trade between Malaysia and the GCC rose from $627 million in 1990 to $15.2 billion in 2012. Attracting students has also become a strategic focus for Malaysia. The Middle Eastern student population in Malaysia increased more than 500 percent between 2000 and 2008.
While Malaysia-Middle East ties are still relatively modest compared to the Middle East’s ties with major trading partners such as the United States, Europe, Japan and China, many on both sides see room for growth. Regional turmoil may make enlarging those tourist and investment dollars a smart bet.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.