LAST WEEK MALAYSIA became a mecca for tourism industry supremos, but many 'pilgrims' - some had been travelling for more than 18 hours from North America - were a little disenchanted by the time they reached the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) delegates had made their way to the Malaysian capital for its 50th annual conference, but some were unaware that the state-of-the-art Sepang airport is about 70 kilometres from the city. It takes less than 3.5 hours to reach Kuala Lumpur from Hong Kong - but the complimentary airport shuttle coaches were taking up to two hours to get delegates to their hotels in the capital in a merry-go-round of drop-offs. Although the airport has been open for nearly three years, the LRT rail link will not operate until next year. But the rail network is well-established in the city, and is proving a boon to travellers, with quick and efficient links to tourist sites and hotels in air-conditioned comfort while temperatures outside soar to the high 30s Celsius. After the transfer delays there were few gripes from the more than 1,300 delegates and media representatives from 55 countries who had descended upon Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia had had plenty of time to prepare for the region's top travel conference and otherwise the event went like clockwork. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad opened the conference. Tourism is Malaysia's biggest foreign exchange earner after manufacturing. Last year saw record arrivals there of 10.22 million, who spent US$4.95 billion (about HK$38.6 billion), compared with 7.93 million arrivals in 1999. Next year has been designated International Year of Eco-Tourism by the United Nations and while Mahathir was stressing in his speech the need for environmentally conscious tourism development, I remembered flying in a light aircraft to Mulu National Park, in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, and being shocked at the devastation caused by logging. Malaysia's record may be less than perfect, but dozens of other countries are also guilty of environmental damage. Mahathir said the World Tourism Organisation had predicted that the number of tourists worldwide would increase to one billion by 2010 and 1.6 billion by 2020. With such big bucks on the horizon, no wonder the tourism industry is beginning to become edgy about the environment. Tourism has come a long way since 81-year-old ambassador Bill Lane attended the first PATA conference 50 years ago. Lane made the keynote speech. He's a tough old soldier. I would meet him in the arrivals hall at Chek Lap Kok on my return. He was on the same flight. Was he stopping over long? 'No, I'll be here for 90 minutes and them I'm off back to the United States,' he said. After his PATA speech, a spectacular and colourful unscheduled cultural show by Malaysian dance troupes delighted the delegates, but probably brought frowns to the faces of the chefs preparing the PATA gold awards lunch. The lunch started late, and the fish - at least on our table - was over-cooked when it arrived. The Hong Kong Tourism Board won a gold award for its international marketing programme, and the environment was back on the agenda with a gold award for the Orchid Hotel in Mumbai (Bombay), Asia's first five-star 'eco-hotel'. This is the hotel's ninth international award in three years. Later in the conference, the wine was flowing at the most laid-back lunch of the week when John Morse, the managing director of the Australian Tourist Commission, had guests in stitches with some of his anecdotes. He retires in July. He'd make a good stand-up comedian, but he wasn't joking when he said the Olympics had put Australia on the map and that annual tourism Down Under was predicted to double to 10 million by 2010 and double again by 2020. But who can really see that far down the road? Call in the fortune-tellers. Meanwhile, in one of the many PATA breakout sessions, the hotel industry was being given advice on how to tackle the problem of Aids among employees. Steve Krause, of the United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAIDS), said 36 million people were HIV positive worldwide and three million had died of Aids last year alone. Ten years ago Aids was virtually unknown in the Asia/Pacific region, but there are now 6.5 million in Asia with HIV. And tourism is widening the epidemic. Anthony Pramualratana, of the Thailand Business Coalition on Aids, cited one Bangkok hotel where a female staff member had died from Aids. A number of co-workers had had sex with her. Another employee there now has Aids, and there is fear and confusion among staff. He said the hotel, which employs 450, had no programme or policy on Aids. The travel industry is being urged to end discrimination against Aids sufferers (many are dismissed out of hand), to educate staff about the disease and treat cases with confidentiality. As the breakout on sex, travel and Aids continued, I scurried upstairs to see how Clara Chong, the Hong Kong Tourism Board's new executive director, was handling her first overseas press conference, alongside chairman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee, introducing the recently launched promotion, 'City of Life: Hong Kong is it!' It received a tepid response from the media when it was announced in the SAR, and I'd been asking a few PATA delegates for their views on Hong Kong. They love it, but some say shopping is old hat, others that we are too rude, and most people I talked to want something done about the pollution. The media conference was a full house, and the throng was respectful, apart from an Indian journalist who complained that he had been frisked at Chek Lap Kok. Question time was limited because the room had been booked for another function, and he was shouted down by other reporters who wanted to ask questions. The video presentation on Hong Kong was terrific, bringing out all the vibrancy of the city: festivals, food, the harbour at night, racing at Sha Tin, aerial views of our country parks and the Big Buddha on Lantau. I felt like flying back. How lucky I am to live in such an exciting city, I pondered. And then I remembered the choking traffic fumes of Central and Causeway Bay. The video didn't focus on grimacing pedestrians covering their faces with handkerchiefs. But, then again, it wouldn't, would it?