How many tourists did Malaysia really get in 2013?

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2013 was another bumper year for international visitors to Malaysia, at least according to the official statistics. In truth, both the total number of tourists – 25.72 million – and their total spend – RM65.44 billion – are massively inflated.

Malaysia has supposedly experienced a huge tourist boom since 1998, when just 5.56 million international visitors came to the country. That’s a near quadrupling in the space of just 15 years! During the same period, total tourist spend has risen by a scarcely believable 660 per cent, from just RM8.6 billion.

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So are these figures a sign of the extraordinary success of Malaysia’s tourism industry, or instead a world-beating example of how to lie with statistics? We would suggest the latter. But don’t take our word for it, take a closer look at the numbers.

Let’s start with Singapore, Malaysia’s much beloved southern neighbour. Now, according to the official figures, 13.18 million citizens of the island state visited in 2013. That means that every Singaporean man, woman and child, took four holidays in Malaysia last year.

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Not only that, but they spent on average RM2,545 per visit, for a total spend of more than RM10,000 over the year. In all, if you believe the official estimates, Singaporean holiday-makers splurged more than RM33.5 billion in Malaysia in 2013!

Which is odd really, given the rather low opinion which Singaporeans tend to hold about all things Malaysian. And it’s odder still that Thailand, despite being much cheaper and having far more world class attractions to offer, welcomed less than a million Singaporean tourists last year.

As the Malaysian authorities are well aware, the vast majority of Singaporeans who visit are not holiday-makers, they are consumers taking advantage of cheaper goods and services north of the border, most notably petrol, cigarettes and prostitution.

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Although the official figure of 13.18 million Singaporean tourists in 2013 is clearly a vast exaggeration, there is almost no way of telling what the real number is. But we would be very surprised if the total of genuine holiday-makers broke the one million barrier.

Hardly less credible are the figures for nationals from Indonesia (2.55 million), Thailand (1.16 million), the Philippines (557,147), Bangladesh (134,663), Nepal (132,148) and Burma (90,740). Not coincidentally, these nationalities make up the vast number of illegal foreign workers in Malaysia.

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So where does that leave us? Well, non-ASEAN visitors made up just a quarter of all international arrivals in Malaysia. By far the biggest non-ASEAN market was China (1.79 million), with only India (650,989), Australia (526,342), and Japan (513,076) breaking the half million mark.

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We doubt very much that the number of genuine tourists coming to Malaysia in 2013 topped 10 million. And crucially, we do not believe they stayed very long. This is because thanks to the connectivity provided by budget airlines like Air Asia, Kuala Lumpur is increasingly being used as a stopover, rather than a destination in its own right.

As an example, the number of New Zealanders coming to Malaysia fell from 81,387 in 2011, to 63,175 in 2013, thanks largely to the ending of Air Asia X’s flight between Christchurch and KL. Faced with a choice of taking Malaysian Airlines, or going somewhere else, a good proportion made the sensible choice.

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Until Tourism Malaysia or the Ministry of Tourism release detailed figures of how long people stay, then the estimates of the total spend by international visitors will remain laughable. Is it in any way credible that the average tourist spend last year was RM2,545?

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Let’s say the average tourist stays between three and seven days, that means a daily spend of between RM365 and RM850. When a five star hotel room can be had for barely RM300 (between two people), and decent meals usually cost well under RM50/head, how exactly are visitors clocking up these totals?

In short, the entire guesstimate is an exercise in wish fulfilment.  As far as we can tell, the tourism people start with the target they have been set for the year (in this case RM55 billion), add a bit to this figure, and divide the end result by the highly dubious number of tourists.

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We can therefore confidently predict that Malaysia will indeed attract 28 million tourists during Visit Malaysia Year 2014, and that these visitors will spend at least RM76 billion. Not in the real world of course, but in Malaysia-boleh land, anything is possible.

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