- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — This multiracial nation’s tourism tag line is “Malaysia Truly Asia,” and true to its slogan, it is home to a unique potpourri of Asian cultures — Malay, Chinese, Indian — along with many indigenous groups on the island of Borneo.

Malaysia is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in Southeast Asia. Aside from its gleaming 21st-century glass towers, it has some of the most superb beaches, mountains and national parks in the region.

Malaysia also is opening its largest-ever tourism campaign in an effort to lure 20 million visitors here this year.

More than 16 million tourists visited in 2005, the last year for which complete statistics are available. Though the majority of them were from Asia, mostly neighboring Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, China, Japan and India, more Western travelers also are making their way to this tropical Southeast Asian paradise. Of the 885,000 travelers from the West, 240,000 were from the United Kingdom, 265,000 from Australia and 150,000 from the United States.

Any tourist itinerary would have to begin in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where you will find the Petronas Twin Towers, which once were the world’s tallest buildings and now are the second-tallest. The 88-story towers soar 1,480 feet high and are connected by a sky bridge on the 41st floor.

Also worth visiting is the Central Market, a prewar building that was the main market for the city and has been transformed into an arts and cultural center.

The limestone Batu Caves, nine miles north of the city, have a 328-foot-high ceiling and ornate Hindu shrines, including a 141-foot-tall gold-painted statue of a Hindu deity. To reach the caves, visitors have to climb 272 steep steps.

In Sabah state on the Malaysian part of Borneo — not to be confused with Indonesian Borneo, the major part of the island — you’ll find the small mushroom-shaped island of Sipadan, off the Sabah coast, rated as one of the top five diving sites in the world. Sipadan is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising from a 2,300-foot abyss in the Celebes Sea.

You also can climb Mount Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Southeast Asia, visit the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary, go white-water rafting and catch a glimpse of the bizarre Proboscis monkey, a primate found only in Borneo with a huge pendulous nose, a characteristic potbelly and strange honking sounds.

While you’re in Malaysia, consider a trip to Malacca. In its heyday, this southern state was a powerful Malay sultanate and a booming trading port in the region. Facing the Straits of Malacca, this historical state is a place of intriguing Chinese streets, antique shops, old temples and reminders of European colonial powers.

Another interesting destination is Penang, an island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia with a rich Chinese cultural heritage, good food and beautiful beaches.

In Pahang, Endau-Rompin National Park’s tropical jungles date back millions of years, making them older than those of the Congo or Amazon. Picturesque trails, giant limestone caves, fishing spots and river trips make it a haven for adventurers.

Tourism is the Southeast Asian nation’s second-largest source of foreign exchange after exports.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi introduced the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 campaign Jan. 6; it coincides with the 50th anniversary of Malaysia’s independence from Britain.

In late December, Tourism Minister Adnan Mansor launched the city’s first luxury double-decker bus service providing a tour of Kuala Lumpur with prerecorded commentaries in eight languages to guide travelers through major attractions.

He said cheap air travel would be crucial to giving a boost to the Visit Malaysia Year 2007 campaign.

The government is in talks with Tiger Airways to fly from Singapore to key tourist destinations on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia and Sabah and Sarawak states on Malaysian Borneo.

Tiger Airways is unlikely to be allowed to fly the lucrative Kuala Lumpur-Singapore route, which is monopolized by flag carriers Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines, he said. The governments of the two countries have yet to decide whether to open the route to competition.

“We are persuading our Transport Ministry to try to get Tiger Airways to come to some other destinations in Malaysia that can also be lucrative,” he said. “We are also talking to Bangkok Air, as well, because they want to come to Malaysia. We would like more [low-cost carriers] to come to our country.”

In a further boost to tourism, Jetstar, a subsidiary of Australian flag carrier Qantas Airways, in January announced plans to start direct flights between Sydney and Kuala Lumpur, making it the second foreign budget airline to fly to Malaysia.

The minister was concerned that floods in southern Malaysia might scare off tourists from Singapore, who make up about 60 percent of foreign visitors to the country each year. The floods have hurt road and rail links between the two countries.

The government is also looking at increasing chartered flights from Europe to lure long-haul travelers, he said.

Go to www.tourismmalaysiausa.com, call 213/689-9702, or visit www.virtualmalaysia.com, www.tourism.gov.my and www.2Malaysia.com.

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