- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia When Saudi housing developer Ghassan Nasry began thinking about a family vacation, he ruled out Western countries because of reports about Arab travelers being harassed. Then he remembered TV advertisements touting the allures of Malaysia.
This predominantly Muslim nation in Southeast Asia has long attracted visitors from nearby countries to its pristine beaches and colorful culture. Now it's also becoming a destination for Middle Easterners seeking luxury vacations with a peaceful, familiar Islamic backdrop.
"There is so much to see and enjoy," said Mr. Nasry, 32, as he strolled with his wife and five children outside the Petronas Twin Towers, the world's tallest buildings. "When I go back to Jidda, I can tell my friends: 'Why go to places where you don't feel welcome? Just come to Malaysia.'"
The number of Middle Easterners visiting this country already had been rising steadily since the late 1990s. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, even more have been coming to what they consider a friendly, moderate nation.
Malaysia had 66,010 tourists from the Middle East from June through August, immigration figures say. That was an increase of 18 percent over the same period of 2001, making the Middle East one of Malaysia's fastest-growing tourist markets.
Tourism is Malaysia's second-largest earner of foreign currency, bringing in $6.8 billion last year from 12.8 million visitors.
Most of the tourists are from neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, but those from the Middle East are much sought after because many are wealthier, take longer vacations and visit several Malaysian destinations.
Tourism Minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir, who has led numerous promotional missions to the Middle East, said recently Malaysia hoped to draw up to 250,000 Middle Eastern visitors in 2002, doubling the previous year's total.
Travelers from the Middle East usually stop first in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city, which mixes mosques and Islamic museums with cosmopolitan facilities such shopping malls and five-star hotels.
From there, many head for scenic islands such as Langkawi and Penang, which Malaysians call the "Pearl of the Orient." Others opt for cooler hilltop resort areas such as Cameron Highlands, filled with strawberry farms and garden playgrounds.
No one in Malaysia wants to be left out of this boom. Hotels and travel agents have been scrambling to increase promotional campaigns in the Middle East and cater to the needs of tourists from that region.
Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, director of communications for Malaysia's Shangri-La hotel group, said the company's two beach resorts in Penang had set up rooms for Muslim prayers and hired Arab staffers to operate a special front desk to welcome Middle Eastern guests.
The group sent representatives to tourism fairs in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and its efforts seem to be paying off. The two Penang resorts had 21,478 Middle Eastern guests in the first eight months of 2002, a 44 percent increase over the same period in 2001.
Awareness of Malaysia in Muslim countries also has been bolstered by its hosting of several meetings of the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference in recent years and by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's high profile.

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