Partner Country Feature: Discovering Malaysia’s Secret South

Interview: Deputy Director Tourism Malaysia Southern Region – Aaron Gan Chai Heng

Johor state is one of the least-known destinations for foreign visitors heading for Malaysia. But that is changing quite rapidly. We asked Aaron Gan Chai Heng how the state is evolving in international markets.

We in the state of Johor have started to progress as an emerging market for Malaysia. The trend started in 2010. That was when the regional development authorities started a major project on what is now known as Legoland. It was a huge project that was already in its planning stages in 2008. Development took some time, but starting 2014 onwards, when Legoland started its operations, we started to capture a different target market. Previously what would happen is that travellers coming from Singapore would just do day trips to Johor Bahru, to see the museums and the Mosques and so on. But over the years, due to the currency exchange we started to see a change in demand, where people were wanting more and more to stay in hotels in Johor Bahru, travelling to Singapore for a day-trip. The only challenge here is our CIQ jam – the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine. There is always a big traffic jam on public holidays, and we need to find ways to ease to congestion on both sides. One of the key reasons international travellers are starting to stay in Johor is because more and more international hotel chains are investing in Johor Bahru. For example, there’s Onyx Group, Doubletree by Hilton, then we have Jen hotel by Shangri-La, and soon, Ramada Méridien, Holiday Inn and Hyatt are coming in. All the big players are starting to see Johor Bahru and Singapore in the same light as Shenzhen and Hong Kong.

Sungai Johor Bridge

The Sungai Johor Bridge, the longest single plane cable-stayed bridge in Malaysia – opened in 2011 – “opening the gate” to the Desaru Coast in Johor.

Previously one couldn’t compare hotels between Johor Bahru and Singapore, but today it is possible. If we take the example of Doubletree by Hilton, you have one in Singapore and one in Johor Bahru. In Singapore, the price is around SGD300 per night, and in Johor Bahru, it’s around 320 Ringgit per night. So, for one night in Singapore, you are actually able to spend three nights here in the same type of hotel with the same service. A number of people are now coming here for that reason. We have the value for money. At the same time, Senai International Airport also plays a major role, as they are constantly trying to attract more international charter flights. The Korean market has been doing charter flights for the past ten years, and finally in Summer 2018 Jin Air finally launched a scheduled daily flight from Incheon to Johor Bahru. We ran a fam tour for this, and many agents stated that Johor Bahru was nothing like the idea they had in mind. In Johor Bahru city you can see rapid development, high rise buildings coming up so fast, it is starting to turn into a modern city. Public transportation will be fully in place by 2022, with the Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) starting in 2021 and the Rail Transit System (RTS) a little later. This will greatly ease traffic congestion.

What about the Chinese market?

In addition to the Koreans, the China market is growing very fast and strong. One of the factors bringing the Chinese travellers here is the rapid development that has been done by the Chinese developers. They completed one project, known as the Country Garden Danga Bay, and the upcoming one is Forest City, only around ten minutes from the second link CIQ. In just two years, they have been building close to twenty high rise buildings at the same time, so it’s coming up very fast. They started their golf course resort in August 2017, and in less than a year it is over 90% complete. A lot of Chinese travellers actually come here to invest. We call it investment tourism, or investment groups. Besides China, we also have a daily flight from Bangkok, and another from Ho Chi Minh. There are of course a number of workers and business people on those flights, but it is surprising how many tourists are also on board. There is Jakarta with Air Asia as well. What happened with Jakarta is we also thought it was a workers’ market, but then we discovered that a lot of young budget travellers were coming into Malaysia from Jakarta. We are starting to have medical tourism attracting a lot of people from around Indonesia. People fly from Jakarta to Batam, and from their they take a ferry to get here, just for medical tourism. We also have Singaporeans coming in because of the exchange rate, strongly patronising the hospitals here.

And the Europeans?

Many European travellers do a classic package tour of Malaysia, starting with Singapore, going to Johor, then up the east coast to Kelantan, then westwards to Langkawi and Penang, and all the way down the west coast. That trend is slowing down a little, because Europeans prefer to see authentic local style, and are less attracted by the new architecture. To this end, some NGOs are starting to rejuvenate the old town area in Johor Bahru. There are a number of almost century-old buildings, but they weren’t maintained. The NGO has grants to restore buildings to their original state, similar to what one can see in Malacca. Then they are finding young people to actually run the businesses in the old shop lots. We can see that Singaporeans, especially youngsters, are starting to come into the town, going to the cafés, snap photos along the streets, and purchase some famous breads before going back. They are generally day trippers, but the experience makes them want to explore more around not only JB, but all of Johor state. Right now, starting this year, Muar, which is in the northern part of Johor, bordering with Malacca, has been revamped so extensively that it became the cleanest district in the whole of Malaysia, receiving an award at the recent PATA conference. I introduced one of the big ground handlers for the Hong Kong market to this place, and they like that place so much they are taking two or three bus-loads of people there every week. It’s a good start. They are doing something similar to Penang, with the mural paintings and so on, and at the same time, there is the local culture and street food that is attracting the people from Hong Kong. We expect to attract more people there.

What other local source markets are interesting? 

Taiwan is another good potential source market, as we have a number of requests from Taiwan concerning the possibility to do a charter flight from Taiwan to Senai. Hainan is also looking for this kind of charter flight. The issue in these cases is the capacity of Senai airport, with demand being higher than supply. From 2018 to 2025 we are looking at a lot of exciting new things. IIn September 2018, MCM Studio will open its door to the public inside Capital City Entertainment Mall. It is the 5th largest indoor theme park in the world. Desaru Coast will be fully operational at the end of 2018 as well. They have at least four new hotels there – the Hard Rock, Westin, One & Only, and also the Anantara, not forgetting the Els Club and the water theme park. The mix of all this actually created a market where from what was previously a cultural, heritage and nature market in Johor into more of a family market. And young people are increasingly coming from Singapore to stay. One might be surprised to know that people come over the bridge and stay overnight in JB. They may take a hotel in the city centre near the old part of town, go out to eat, and enjoy something very different from what they have back home. When Asians travel they love to just go out and try the local food. They also sometimes bring their friends from other countries to patronise these places.