Malaysia: Unfortunate timing to promote religious tourism


Let’s be frank about it. Malaysia’s image of a multi-cultural, multi-religious society – as always shown to the international community- has been severely battered for the last three years with rising ethnic tensions among Malaysia’s various communities. It culminated early this year with small arson committed against churches and some vandalism acts on mosques. Ironically, these incidents occurred at a time when Tourism Malaysia started to promote religious tourism –admittedly in a very low profile way.

For the first time, Tourism Malaysia published a brochure in 2009 called ‘Places of Worship’ where the country’s most famous religious monuments are described according to the faith they serve. “We take a very prudent approach as opening up Muslim sites to tourism is a sensitive topic. However, we do encourage sites such as historical mosques to open up more to foreign non-Muslim travelers. We already organize round-table discussions to see in which ways tourism and Islam can work together,” says Ahmad Zaki Mohd Salleh, Assistant Director Research and Industry Development for Malaysia Tourism. Last year, Kuala Lumpur’s largest mosque, Masjid Negara -an architectural masterpiece of tropical modern school- opened its doors to all travelers. Proper clothes such as tuniques for both men and women are offered to visitors.

Tourism Malaysia is also considering opening up some Islamic boarding schools to foreign travelers in a bid to give an opportunity for Non-Muslim to learn about the values of Islam and its philosophies. However, the scheme has been greeted with mixed feeling by ‘Pondok’. The State of Kelantan – on the Northeast Coast- has already three of these schools welcoming foreigners.

Last year, the integration of Melaka and Penang into UNESCO World Heritage List last year is also closely linked to the theme of religious harmony. The blend of religions and races contributed in the past to the golden age of both cities, as they attracted people from all over the world.

Meanwhile, the current incidents contribute to tarnish Malaysia’s image in the mind of international travelers. Not because sporadic violence makes Malaysia unsafe to visit for foreigners. It is more indeed about the widening gap between the projected image of Malaysia and the reality. The ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ slogan underlines that the blend of three big Asian cultures – Chinese, Indian and Malay- contribute to create a unique destination embodying the spirit of Asia. But now, visitors start to sense a different reality, where ethnic harmony in the society is far of being secured. Specialists of Malaysia have already known for a long time that, despite the fact that Malaysia guarantees freedom of faith to his citizens, there has been over the last 15 years an ongoing islamization of the society which has translated into frustration for non-Muslim Malaysian citizens. The difference is that it becomes increasingly public. Tourism Malaysia and the Ministry of Tourism will now need to convey a stronger message to international travelers that Malaysians can all live together to justify its successful ‘Truly Asia’ slogan…