A reader recently wrote to the media urging districts to attract more tourists.
The writer lamented that the nine districts in Selangor have not been able to realise their full potential in drawing international and domestic tourists, and tourism earnings for the state are far behind Melaka and Penang.
He believes that empowering districts would be the right approach to give tourism greater focus and importance, and appointing up to five travel and tour firms for each district would result in a win-win situation for the authorities and companies.
If solutions are that simple, then the authorities were at fault for not introducing them earlier. When city and municipal councils could barely maintain cleanliness and basic amenities, would they have the gumption to attract more tourists?
But first, we need to understand what tourism is, who the tourists are, and why people travel. These may sound familiar and straightforward but are actually quite complex. Embracing them only at a superficial level has resulted in little progress, even regress, for our tourism industry.
For example, very few graduates with diplomas or degree sin tourism can describe what tourism is meaningfully in their own words. Over 90 percent of them work in other industries, as their limited skills and knowledge are not applicable in the tourism industry.
Decades ago, many local authorities proudly announced the completion of access roads to waterfalls, claiming that they had done their part in promoting tourism for the district.
What they have succeeded in doing was providing free recreation to the public but at high costs to the pristine environment. Cutting down jungle to build roads and callous people thronging there over weekends have done irreversible damage to the ecosystem.
In no time, areas near waterfalls and mountain streams were littered with rubbish, attracting flies, insects and animals such as rats with their deadly urine. A single gulp of water or open wound that comes into contact with the ground tainted with rat urine is enough to infect a person with leptospira bacteria.
In 2015, rat urine disease killed 78 people in Malaysia. In the first half of last year, nearly 2,200 people have contracted leptospirosis, with nearly half of them in Selangor. Apart from slippery rocks, trees and branches can come crashing down during heavy rain.
A sudden gush of water can sweep away those in or near mountain streams when a natural dam bursts. In remote places with few visitors, it is easy to fall victim to robbers or rapists. The safety and security of tourists should come first in any tourism development.
To promote ecotourism, concessionaires should be appointed and allowed to erect commercial facilities such as restaurants and chalets, subject to environmental impact assessment, and equipped with proper treatment of effluents and disposal of garbage.
Concessionaires are to be made responsible for the cleanliness and upkeep of the entire recreational area or risk losing the contract and deposit. Reputable NGOs are to be appointed to conduct regular audits, cutting off opportunity for enforcement officers to be on the take.
Tourism is big business encompassing several main sectors and overlapping many other industries. Tourism dollars are mainly spent on shopping, accommodation, food & beverage, transport, tours and entertainment.
As for tourists, they can be foreigners visiting Malaysia for holiday, business, education, sport or medical treatment. Most of them are free independent travellers, and are not easily noticeable, unlike those travelling in tour buses.
Inbound tourists have something in common. Before arriving Malaysia, they have booked all or some of their services in advance through travel agents back home, or directly with Malaysian tour operators, hotels or other suppliers.
Apart from operating tours within Malaysia, most inbound operators sell optional tours to foreign tourists they are handling, and those let loose by competitors that failed to exploit a captive audience, besides catering to expats working here and Malaysians travelling within the country.
It is a fallacy that domestic and outbound tours are confined to Malaysians, as many foreigners buy tour packages in Malaysia for travel within or out of the country. Those booking online may not be aware they may be paying online travel agents based overseas for services in Selangor.
It is wishful thinking that established tour firms can be relied upon to promote district tourism as they are “experienced”. The public cannot differentiate between travel agencies licensed for ticketing, and tour companies licensed under inbound or outbound.
There are few large travel agencies handling big corporate accounts, which require highly skilled staff to make complex airline and hotel reservations, and other ancillary services. Travel agencies are licensed only for ticketing, and not for organising or operating tours.
Almost all outbound tour operators are also licensed for inbound, but most concentrate on package tours to overseas as they are more popular and can be cheaper. Fares on budget airlines are often lower than charter rates for a tour bus or van tor travel in Malaysia.
The most suitable candidates for promoting district tourism are inbound companies operating tour buses, more so when their vehicles are underutilised, and individuals with sound knowledge of the district, such as tourist guides, taxi drivers and local experts.
Every city or municipal council should organise “Upgrade district through community-based-tourism” forums biannually. All relevant public and private sector bodies, consultants and concerned individuals should be invited to make short presentations, concentrating on proposals rather than complaints.
Such regular engagements are necessary to ensure follow-up actions. For example, a city or municipal council should study suggestions put forward and explain at the next forum why some proposals could not be carried out, and announce what they will be implementing.
Likewise, private sectors should report why they did not make full use of the infrastructure and facilities made available for them to bring in more tourists, and this includes shops, hotels, restaurants, tour operators and other tourism players.
As mentioned earlier, they are all kinds of visitors and reasons for travelling to the district, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Hotels would target tourists staying overnight, while retailers and restaurants are happy with excursionists on day trips.
For example in Tanjung Sepat at Kuala Langat district, a popular pau (dumpling) shop attracts bus-loads of foreign and local tourists, spawning many nearby stalls selling all kinds of food and drinks, giving the vicinity a carnival-like atmosphere on weekends.
While forums are great to bring stakeholders onto the same page, every district must develop their own mobile app with information on all the interesting sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch tourists can experience and enjoy.
Printing brochures would be a waste of money as most are left to gather dust, and those picked up are discarded within minutes. On the other hand, information in the app can be accessed from anywhere around the globe 24/7.
Instead of subjecting would-be visitors to online information searches, all interesting and relevant information would be assembled in the app in organised fashion, allowing smartphone users to zoom in on the required information or make bookings by pressing a few buttons.
A great app would attract tourists from all over the world to the district, making promotions by tourism bodies and companies secondary. Upon arrival, it can be used for navigation and accommodation reservations, and the experiences and recommendations can instantly be forwarded and shared.
Tourists will get to enjoy a district three times, starting with anticipation, as they would know what they will be getting. Upon arrival, they consume the experience with their five senses. Later they leave with unforgettable memories, which could easily be recalled using their smartphones.
As such, it is imperative for communities to band together and discover what they have to offer in their own backyards. Making their district a paradise on earth for tourists will also help the community prosper.