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Mon, Sep 12, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Arab tourists leave the paranoid West behind

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

A group of Middle-East women clad in the traditional head-to-toe black ``chador'' stroll through a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. Southeast-Asian capitals are enjoying an influx of big-spending tourists from Arab states.

PHOTO: AFP

Southeast Asian capitals are enjoying an influx of big-spending tourists from Arab states, who say they feel unwelcome in Europe and the US as the world turns jittery after the London bombings.

Weary of being treated with suspicion in the West, they say they prefer the region's bustling cities and sun-kissed beaches, and Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are welcoming the cashed-up visitors with open arms.

Malaysia is drawing on its image as a modern and progressive Muslim country to target some 200,000 Arab tourists this year, a 40 percent increase on last year and far from the modest 21,731 arrivals recorded in 1999.

"In the last few years, geopolitical developments have pushed Malaysia higher up in the rankings of the favorite destinations of tourists from the Middle East," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said.

"They enjoy the sense of safety and security and the relative peace of Malaysia's cities," he said at the launch of the new "Arab Square" precinct in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, and more recently the deadly London blasts, life has become difficult for Arab tourists, particularly women who are often dressed in the traditional head-to-toe black chador.

Many also said they were nervous about returning to once-popular destinations like London and the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh after both were bombed in July.

"My wife and I came here because it is a Muslim country, and it is safe for us to visit. The people are friendly," said Bamndar al-Zahrani, 27, from Saudi Arabia, at the launch of Arab Square.

Mariam al-Zaabi, 27, from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), said from beneath her chador that the sleepy Malaysian capital was not a particularly exciting destination but that shopping and safety were big attractions.

"I'll tell you the truth, we're afraid to go to the UK and US now because of where we come from. My wife is wearing the hijab and we'll face trouble over there," her 30-year-old husband Khamis said.

"Everybody we know has said it is okay and safe for us. It's just not safe to go to the US and Britain anymore," said 26-year-old Miswaleed al-Hamade, also from the UAE and dressed in flowing black as she pushed her baby in a stroller.

In a bid to keep them happy, authorities have allowed shops to open as late as 2am over the July to September peak season, when Middle East tourists escape sweltering 50?C heat in favor of Southeast Asia's cooler monsoon season.

Mindful that Arab tourists spend an average 4,500 ringgit (US$1,194) each on their holiday, almost double that of other visitors, hotels are printing menus in Arabic and hired Middle-Eastern chefs to serve up authentic cuisine.

Arab Square, once a dilapidated section of a neighborhood notorious for drug addicts and prostitutes, has undergone a glitzy revamp and is now shaded by banyan trees and home to a Arab-run hotel, Lebanese restaurants and shops selling Middle-Eastern essentials.

Further south in Singapore, the number of Arab tourists has also grown substantially, jumping 78 percent to 68,000 last year, and edging up another 8.1 percent in the first half of this year.

The city-state's advantage lies in being "perceived as a safe destination with high-quality services," said Dayne Lim, the Singapore Tourism Board's manager for South Asia, Middle East and Africa.

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