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Malaysian Mystery Rattling Traveling Public?

Two months after the odd disappearance of the jet, we look at how it’s affecting the Malaysian travel market.

Friday, May 16, 2014
Caryn Eve Murray
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So much was lost on March 8, when a Malaysian jet enroute from Kuala Lumpur failed to find its way to its destination in Beijing: Gone were the 227 passengers, 12 crew members, the Malaysia Airline plane itself and, ultimately, confidence, faith and hope. Though Malaysian, Australian and Chinese officials have scrutinized the mysterious disappearance and the aircraft’s presumed plunge into the Indian Ocean, there remains little certainty about what happened and, for those personally involved, there is even less solace to be had.

Travel professionals, too, have been deeply shaken, particularly because the matter remains unresolved as of this date and because it occurred in such a prominent, well-trod part of the world. But unlike the passengers' grieving families in China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia and the U.S., the industry is proving resilient – partly because of necessity but mostly because of a recognition that disasters, even those that are global and painfully high-profile, are nonetheless surmountable.

"There could be a slight downturn for a few weeks after these things happen but in general it doesn't have a big impact. And travel in that part of the world is only on the upswing," said Adam Weissenberg, global leader of the Travel, Hospitality & Leisure segment of Deloitte & Touche LLP. "You have more and more Chinese travelers, Malaysian travelers in general continue to travel more and more. And the population is growing in that part of the world."

Weissenberg, who was in Singapore a week or so after Flight 370's disappearance, noted that he saw, first-hand, how travel was "still in the very high numbers" during those early troubled weeks.

"I met with people there and, unfortunately, you know things happen. I think the U.S. has 20,000 flights on any given day, multiply that by the world and, knock wood, they are very safe. Things happen. But honestly, for the majority of travelers it doesn't affect their plans. People get over it and move on."

Even the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 and the SARS outbreak that swept Asia were followed by travel bouncing back, he said.

"I think people say, 'hey it is the world we live in....For the majority of travelers it doesn't affect their plans...And to some extent people almost take it and do the opposite, saying 'hey I am going to do this. This is not going to affect me, you can't worry about stuff like that."

Clearly there have been concerns. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, PATA International, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, met with officials in Malaysia, recalls Simone Bassous, executive director of PATA’s New York chapter, the organization’s largest chapter.

"And we are trying to have a meeting with the Malaysian Tourist Board here, the local chapter," to talk about the crisis and how to best support them in their marketing and strategic needs, she said. "People should continue traveling and visiting," she said. "It doesn't do any good to stay away. These disasters happen, alas," she said.

According to Weissenberg, the bigger question - unrelated to the Flight 370 tragedy - is the general future of the regional airlines in Asia. "Will they be able to survive in the long run? We are starting to see more and more consolidation in these carriers, particularly the Middle Eastern ones."

Weissenberg said that traffic between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing will not suffer either, certainly not in the long run. “Lots of people still have to fly between those two places….Hopefully they will find the airline soon and then we will know exactly what happened,” he said.

Johanif Ali, director of Tourism Malaysia’s New York office, said his office’s efforts to boost travel to Malaysia have gone unchanged – at least for the long-haul market, such as here in the U.S. -- and he is gratified there is also a clear understanding that what happened with the airliner “has nothing to do with the destination.” People still enthusiastically participate in seminars and programs about Malaysian travel, he said, “and we continue with our programs,” especially encouraging travel agents, through PATA, to see what opportunities there are in Malaysian travel.

“In the long-haul market,” he said, “the United States is number two for the long-haul destination, after the United Kingdom.” Ali said 246,000 Americans traveled to Malaysia in 2013 – both for business and leisure – behind Britain’s nearly 1 million.

In first quarter of this year, he said, there was no loss of revenue from North America in travel to Malaysia. “Our January, February and March numbers are up by 2.6 percent, compared to last year in terms of North American travel to Malaysia,” he said. That translates into about 20,000 travelers to Malaysia from the continent each month.

“We continue to encourage all tour operators not only in selling Malaysia between Asian countries but we focus on the long-haul destinations – with Asia as one destination,” he said. “We show them that Asia is one destination, all our countries are small [so people can buy a package]. We encourage multi-destination, a combination of Malaysia and Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. Agents can be encouraged to package these things.”

On the other hand, promotion of travel between Malaysia and China, of course, was put on hold out of sensitivity for Flight 370, he said. Tourism Malaysia has three offices in China – in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

“They stopped everything in terms of the promotion and campaign. We stopped until further notice to be sensitive to the family member, especially in the Beijing area,” he said.

At some point, he said, the promotions will resume. But sadly, he said, the airliner’s saga remains, at least for now, “a story with no ending.”
Caryn Eve Murray
Associate Editor
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Caryn Eve Murray is a freelance writer and an assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday on Long Island. During her tenure as a business writer for New York Newsday, she covered the city's small business community for which she won the Distinguished Business Reporting Award of Excellence from the New York Newspaper Publishers Association. She has also been a feature columnist and writer and has ...
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