Tired of post-9/11 hassles, Arab tourists head east

Saudi visitors to Malaysia were up 53 percent in 2004.

Want to know the word on the Arab street this summer? Try Malaysia.

Fearful of a frosty reception in the West, well-heeled Muslims from the Middle East are heading to Malaysia in droves for their annual vacations. Arrivals from Saudi Arabia rose 53 percent in the first half of 2004, and hoteliers are predicting a bumper "Arab season" through September.

For Arabs, multifaith Malaysia presents an alternative face of Islam - one that is more relaxed, open, and Western than many Middle Eastern regimes. But the comfort of the familiar is the initial lure for most tourists.

In Kuala Lumpur, a modern city of malls, mosques, and shady parks, outdoor cafes echo late into the night with Arabic-language conversation. Aziz, a mechanical engineer from Saudi Arabia, sips orange juice through a straw and ponders his vacation options.

"My wife and I have been to the US and to London before. But ... since 9/11 lots of people are afraid to go to the US. If you can't enjoy yourself there, you don't want to go for a holiday," he says, nodding at his wife, who wears a full-length black veil with eye slits.

Part of the attraction for Muslim visitors is Malaysia's easy-going blend of Islamic customs, modern conveniences, and tropical scenery. It's also cheaper than a jaunt to Paris for Arab honeymooners, who say they are drawn by the promise of beach resorts and shopping bargains.

But perhaps the biggest selling point is visa-free access. Unlike the US and Europe, which have tightened immigration rules, Malaysia throws open its doors to Muslim visitors, a policy that has drawn criticism in the past. Two of the Saudi hijackers who crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 held planning meetings in Kuala Lumpur in early 2000.

Malaysia has responded by clamping down on homegrown militants and sharing intelligence with the US and regional allies. At the same time, it has courted the Middle East market with $2 million in advertising and kept its visa policy unchanged.

As a result, Malaysia has capitalized on the turmoil of post-9/11 travel. Between 2000 and 2002, annual arrivals from the Middle East soared to 132,000, up from 53,000, before dipping in 2003 during Asia's SARS outbreak. This year looks likely to track upwards again.

Hoteliers who used to struggle to fill rooms during the summer months, are now busy hiring Arabic speakers and adding tailored services. They're not the only beneficiaries of the boom: Malaysia's central bank estimates that tourism accounts for 10 percent of the country's economic output.

"People in KL [Kuala Lumpur] have realized how important these visitors are. They pump a lot of money into the economy in the summertime," said Julius Santos, director of marketing at the Regent Hotel.

Tourist arrivals from the Middle East are still puny compared to the millions of Asians, Europeans, and Americans that visit Malaysia every year. But they tend to stay longer and spend more, and are unfazed by daytime temperatures of 90 degrees. "This is like air-conditioning to Arabs," jokes Santos.

Malaysia also offers a window for Muslim visitors into Southeast Asia's mostly moderate brand of Islam and its relaxed social codes. While ethnic Malay women favor a head scarf, known as a jilbab, and modest clothes, many Chinese women prefer short skirts and plunging necklines.

At an open-air cafe across from the Regent, Noor, a 23-year-old student, sat at a table puffing on a hookah water pipe with three female relatives. Smoking in public is banned back home in Saudi Arabia, she said, between pulls on her pipe.

Her dress has also undergone a makeover. Instead of a full-length black veil, Noor has switched to wearing a floral jilbab. Her cousins nod enthusiastically as she ticks off the local attractions: plush hotels, well-stocked malls, plenty of halal food options.

"I will tell my family they have to visit Malaysia. Actually we have already called them and told them to come," she says. Hoteliers say word of mouth is critical for Arab tourists, far outweighing the impact of flashy TV spots.

Restaurants and other businesses have sprung up to cater for the new visitors. Iraqi-born Ala Salih opened his Sahara Tent restaurant in April 2001, just in time to catch the tourist wave. Three years on, Salih ticks off six new competitors in downtown Kuala Lumpur alone. He plans to open a private room where diners can eat under traditional Bedouin tents made from Syrian goat hair.

Not content with his thriving restaurant, located below a Chinese-owned hotel, Salih is busy turning this corner of the city into a travel hub. Visitors can now get their hair cut, shop for perfume, and book trips - all in Arabic. Many chose to stay upstairs in the hotel. Such easy access is crucial for retaining customer loyalty, he explains. "Arabs are the most fussy tourists on earth. They want everything done for them," he says.

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