Malaysian allure charms Arabs
The Middle East has come to the Far East, says hotel supervisor Winsom Wong, pointing to scores of Middle Eastern tourists crowding Arab Street - an aptly renamed footpath to honour the 'army of Arabs' who virtually take control of the Malaysian capital every August.
The scene is late evening in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, and families of well-heeled Middle Easterners are out window-shopping or packing the sidewalk cafes. Older women are wearing the black burqa, the head-to-toe Arabic dress. Today, the burqa is a permanent feature of the landscape. Arab youths are in casuals - sneakers and branded T-shirts complete with skateboards and savvy-looking gadgets.
'At one time, this area was a traditional Chinese enclave of small shops catering to Taiwanese tourists, but today it is a scene straight out of Lebanon or Kuwait,' says Mr Wong, 32, leaning on a railing outside Hotel Malaya, a quaint old hotel that has been taken over by scores of long-staying Arab families, mostly from Saudi Arabia.
Melodious Arabic now mixes easily with a cacophony of Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English, adding colour and vibrancy to the multi-ethnic 'melting pot' society that is Malaysia. August is the peak of what tour operators call the 'Arab season', when major hotels brim with Middle Easterners escaping their hot summer for wet and humid Islamic Malaysia.
The phenomenon started as a trickle soon after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Middle Easterners who usually holidayed in the US and Europe looked for 'safer' vacation retreats.
'Malaysia is one of the beneficiaries of the change in attitudes,' says Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Mansor. 'We stepped in with numerous promotions to attract Middle Eastern tourists. It is our fastest growing market.'
Middle Eastern tourists are valued because they stay twice as long as others, spend three times more and return for a 'second helping' soon after their first holiday.
'Malaysia's lush greenery, exotic islands and abundant Islamic motifs like quaint mosques set amid rice fields are major attractions,' says Mr Adnan.
According to tourists themselves, they like the abundant rain, waterfalls, friendly and helpful people, and the mosques that dot the country.
'The country is Islamic enough for us and offers spectacular shopping, beaches, greenery and exotic but halal food,' says Saudi engineer Abdul Lateef Feizal, who is with his wife and two children. 'We are here for three weeks and plan to return again.'
The government is bending over backwards to welcome Arabs. Besides allowing Arabic at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, there is a special lane for Arab visitors. All Middle Easterners receive a hassle-free visa on arrival. Hotels, shopping complexes and tour operators are also requested to hire Arabic speakers.
The investment is showing results. In 2004, some 67,000 Middle Easterners visited the country, and the numbers have since increased - 147,646 in 2005 and 186,821 last year.
'This year, we expect the figure to exceed 300,000 visitors ... almost a 100 per cent increase,' says Mr Adnan. 'We are targeting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Syria and the United Arab Emirates.'
Hotels and restaurants increasingly offer Islamic halal food, build separate swimming pools for Arab women, equip rooms with Arabic cable TV, redesign outlets in Arabic motifs and offer Arabic music. Some also run sisha (pipe smoking) outlets.
Going by anecdotal stories, Arab tourists, because of their 'high spending' ways, are highly prized and their quirks easily forgiven.
'They like water so much that they even open the taps and flood the rooms,' says waiter Kamaruddin Ismail.
'I always take them to the Titiwangsa waterfalls,' says taxi driver Arumugan Sinnaiyan, referring to a popular waterfall 30km north of the capital. 'They just look at the waterfall for hours on end.'
Lebanese doctor Talla Hassanul, 59, who is on his second Malaysian holiday with his family of six, first came in 2003 and had a difficult time getting around.
'There were no Arabic speakers and everything was strange and new, but I loved Malaysia at first sight,' he says, 'especially in the morning when I can hear the azan [the morning call to pray].'
'It is so green compared to Lebanon ... and there is so much rain,' he says, adding that conditions Arabic tourists have improved greatly.
'We hear friendly Arabic greetings on arrival, at the hotel reception, in the restaurants and even in some shopping complexes. They have turned parts of the capital into a Middle East.'
Mr Talla is staying for three weeks before heading to Bali for a week.
'I will be back,' he says. 'However, I hope something will be done to stop taxis from overcharging us.'
It is a common grouse with Arab tourists - that they are being ripped off by taxis - although some don't mind because everything is a fraction of the price in the US and Europe.
The overcrowding in the Arab season this year is intensified by the 50th independence celebration that fell on Friday. Malaysian Hotels Association vice-president Ivo Nekvapil said hotels were fully booked in August, the best performance since the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.
'It's full house, not only with Middle Easterners but also people from US, Europe, Japan and Hong Kong,' Mr Adnan says. 'Total arrivals for this year could exceed 24 million, more than the 20 million we had targeted.'
The big news is that the action does not end when the Arab season draws to a close in the middle of this month. After a pause, another peak season will start in October, this time from the rest of the world.