Malaysia: the cruise tourism playground of the east

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When Malaysia coined the phrase “Straits Riviera” to reflect its beautiful coast, it was a name squarely focused on attracting cruise lines to call at its ports.
It has some bold aims: generate M$1.75 billion in gross national income and create 10,000 jobs by 2020.

And it is looking like it is on target, given many of today’s growing Asian cruise itineraries involve Malaysian ports.

Four out of nine journeys offered by Royal Caribbean, for instance, involve Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysian government has thrown its strong support behind new port developments, infrastructure upgrades and improving coastal towns and cities to make them more attractive as cruise destinations.

The aim is to entice international cruise lines to expand their itineraries and include multiple Malaysian ports given growing competition from neighbouring countries,  the Oxford Business Group’s latest report on Malaysia says. The OBG is a research publishing firm founded in 1994 by Oxford graduates. It publishes intelligence reports covering 34 countries around the world from its offices in London, Istanbul and Dubai.

At the recent Global Tourism Economic Forum in Macau, Tourism Malaysia chairman Tan Sri Dato’ Sri Dr. Ng Yen Yen said the government wants to turn Malaysia into one of Asia’s largest port hubs.

“Malaysia is developing and upgrading our hubs for cruise tourism and the Government is supportive of making Malaysia the main cruise tourism playground of the East,” she said.

This has led to the formation of the Malaysia Cruise Council (MCC) in 2012, an advisory committee comprising of representatives from both public and private sectors including the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Ministry of Transport and local authorities.

According to Tourism Malaysia, the Asian and international cruise market has been steadily growing by an average of 14 per cent annually over the past 10 years.

But last year, Asia became the fastest growing cruise market increasing by 31.6 per cent ahead of Australia at 22 per cent, the Caribbean (12 per cent) and Europe (5.2 per cent) according to Cruise Lines International Association.

This is good news for Malaysia as the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Europe have traditionally been the hot destinations for international cruise lines.

The Malaysian Cruise Council, an advisory body comprising government and the private cruise operators, says Penang dominated the market, handling the biggest number of cruise arrivals with a total of 211,554 passengers from 139 ships in 2012.

However, if you take the popular “Cruise to Nowhere’’ which is offered by lines such as Amusement World and Star Cruises, more than 1.29 million passengers visited Penang in 2013. This includes the various ferry services that ply between Penang and Acheh in Indonesia and Pulau Payar in Kedah, Malaysia.
The Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal in Georgetown on Penang Island is close to the city and has always been a popular port of call for international cruise lines. It re-opened in 2010 after a major refurbishment and now has a main berth which is capable of handling the largest cruise vessels in the world. It also has two inner berths for smaller ships.

The Cruise Council said Port Klang hosted 195,000 passengers in 2013 – an increase of 38 per cent  – compared to 141,266 passengers with 98 cruise ships the previous year while Malacca came in third with 54,166 passengers and 52 ships.

Port Klang Cruise Centre is the closest terminal for the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur about 45 kms away. It is a well equipped terminal with foreign exchange counters, restaurants, duty free outlets and taxi service.

The port is frequently used by international cruise lines including Cunard, Royal Caribbean, Crystal Serenity, Princess, Costa, Carnival and Star Cruises.
One of Malaysia’s biggest port developments will be the M$40 billion, 246-hectare project called Melaka Gateway which will include the new Malacca International Cruise Terminal to be completed by 2025.

The project developed by KAJ Development will have a waterfront tourist shopping gallery, a luxury hotel and a theme park featuring the Malaysia Eye, a 103-metre Ferris Wheel which is among the world’s tallest.  Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd has signed on as the partner and consultant of the cruise terminal project.

Another development which will raise the country’s profile as a cruise destination is the M$1.8 billion Jesselton Quay, an integrated complex with offices, a hotel, convention centre, shopping malls and a cruise terminal in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. The major project is expected to be completed in 2017.
Smaller cruise ships also call at the Port of Langkawi on the west coast of Malaysia and Port of Kuching in Sarawak.

Malaysia has 13 states and its capital Kuala Lumpur is about 300 km north of Singapore. It has a population of about 30 million with a mix of races, religion, languages and cultures dominated by the Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. While Malaysia produces about 39 per cent of the world’s palm oil, tourism is one of the country’s major contributors to the economy adding US$20.3 billion in 2013.

Visitors from ASEAN neighbouring nations contributed more than 70 per cent of its total 5.1 million arrivals in 2013, led by Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines.

But in the first half of 2014, there has been a steady drop in the number of visitors from China because of the tragic disappearance of Malaysia Airlines MH370 enroute from KL to Beijing on March 8.

Malaysia is now moving to shore up its Chinese market by going on an advertising blitz. It also wants to attract more long-haul tourists from Australia, Europe and the USA and has plans to expand its marketing campaign in the Middle East and other predominantly Muslim countries.