Challenges in promoting tourism in overlooked towns

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Many towns are trying to draw visitors to spend money and boost the local economy.

Although most Malaysians living in the peninsula have not been to Mersing, they could have heard of this coastal town situated in northeast Johor, as it is the departure point by ferry to many popular resort islands nearby, with the largest and most well-known being Pulau Tioman.

Upon reaching Mersing by road, visitors would take a toilet break and may have a quick meal before catching the first ferry available to their island destination. The same happens on the return journey, with few holidaymakers spending time exploring the town or staying overnight.

Mersing has been off my radar until I read a recent report “Bring tourists to Mersing mainland, not just island”. Tourism in this town is indeed in the doldrums. For example, Pantai Air Papan, which was once a popular beach destination, is now devoid of visitors.

Mersing District Council councillor Azhar Zainal Abidin pointed out that there is a need to overhaul the tourism industry in the district as it only benefits those operating on the island. He was reported to have said, “Those on the mainland only earn an income during the monsoon season when the islands are closed for activities.”

“I believe that the state government has the capability of bringing in international investors, like what was done for Desaru in Kota Tinggi. Once, there was an eco-tourism project dubbed ‘Mersing Laguna’ but was cancelled in 2012. Perhaps now would be the right time to consider a similar project.”

He added, “We could create a more balanced industry by introducing new tourism products on the mainland through these investors so that it benefits all those living in Mersing. The state government and the local council could introduce investor-friendly policies, such as giving them a three-year tax exemption so that they could really build a strong foundation first.”

Azhar disclosed that the district council was planning to introduce a recreational vehicle or motorhome-friendly area in Pantai Air Papan.

He elaborated, “This requires a very large budget, which I don’t think the council is capable of providing. We want to upgrade the current amenities that have been affected by coastal erosion, fix unkempt food courts and provide charging stations and Wi-Fi connectivity. The local community should also play a proactive role by opening stalls to sell quality food and products.”

In the same report, Mersing Tourism Association Chairman Sheikh Zulkifli Sheikh Abdul Rahim stated that the tourism industry in Mersing is in dire straits. He lamented, “After the Covid-19 pandemic, people have shifted their focus to spending only on necessities.”

“Tourism has become an activity only for those with disposable income. But those who can afford it prefer to go abroad to places like Thailand, which is one of our major competitors as an island and beach destination. Even after international borders were reopened in April last year, industries in Mersing are still struggling.”

He added, “Even island hopping is not popular anymore. We are planning to meet with the state government after Hari Raya to find ways to bring more traffic into the district. The majority of tourism operators are finding it hard to sustain their day-to-day operations and pay their workers on time.”

I find the report very revealing as both gentlemen had identified the problems and challenges the town is facing in attracting visitors. But the issues are the same elsewhere, as many towns are also trying to draw visitors to spend money and boost the local economy.

But little will change if people are stuck to conventional thinking such as the need for a big budget or huge investments to turn a town into a popular destination. And describing Mersing Laguna as an ecotourism project is incorrect as it would destroy the ecosystem if implemented.

Fortunately, Mersing has passionate people like Azhar Zainal Abidin and Sheikh Zulkifli. If there are a few more people like them in Mersing, the residents there could overcome many of the challenges if they are willing to seek help from outsiders and open to new ideas.

It is normal for the locals to offer what they have, but they should also consider what visitors want. Instead of assuming, it would be better to find out by asking, not just from ordinary visitors but also from industry experts based in the Klang Valley, Johor Bahru and Singapore.

The Mersing District Council or the Mersing Tourism Association could organise a forum or tourism lab in Mersing. Invited speakers could first present their ideas using slides. If 40 participants are split into eight groups, each group could do a presentation after discussions.

If invited, I alone would be able to propose more than 10 new activities that Mersing could offer that would attract visitors, and all these with minimal or affordable budgets by the public and private sectors. This is because every town is unique and has its own charms and attractions.

All that is needed is finding the synergy to unlock their hidden potential. But it would require a paradigm shift, which is as difficult as thinking outside the box. This explains why things remain largely status quo, as changes are normally seen as problems rather than opportunities.

The views expressed here are strictly those of YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.

YS Chan is a master trainer for Mesra Malaysia and Travel and Tours Enhancement Course as well as an Asean Tourism Master Trainer. He is also a transport and training consultant and writer.