Asian Wall Street Journal Friday-Saturday January 29-30 1999

Malaysian Group Offers Electronic Form Letter to Promote Tourism
by Louis Lee

CAN SPAM help Malaysian tourism? Electronic-mail users frown on "Spam," named after the canned lunch meat and cyber-slang for chain letters and junk mail sent over the Internet.

But some cyber-savvy Malaysians insist their spam will help rustle up tourists to Malaysia. The group, Pahlawan, has posted on their web site a form letter ready to be cut and pasted and forwarded around the world. "In our warm and friendly Malaysian way," the spam reads, "I invite you to visit my country."

"The Visit Malaysia CyberCampaign" underscores the growing importance of e-mail and the World Wide Web as low-cost, grass roots direct marketing tools. Web sites are easily accessible around the clock. E-mail addresses of potential customers are easily gleaned from electronic chat groups, Web pages, member directories and other mass mailings. And electronic messages can be copied and forwarded with a couple of keystrokes.

The question is, will recipients find the electronic age's equivalent of junk mail "warm and friendly?"

Perhaps, since the email will be coming from individual Malaysians instead of a giant, faceless corporation. The idea is to make it as easy as possible for Malaysians to "act as goodwill ambassadors for the nation," the group says.

MALAYSIA needs all the tourists it can get. Like other Asian nations, it's in the depths of recession.

"We're actually spamming," concedes Patricia Lu, one of the group's nine volunteers. But spam can be effective, she says, if you get if from someone you know. "Chances are, you're more likely to come because you tend to believe your friends", says Ms Lu, a management consultant and seminar organizer in Kuala Lumpur.

The Web site encourages senders to personalize the sample so that it doesn't look like a form letter, says Foong Wai Fong, another volunteer. "If senders are writing with their hearts, that's a lot more effective," says Ms Foong, a partner in a Kuala Lumpur market-research firm.

The sample letter, posted in English, Mandarin and Malay, touts Malaysia as "the best-kept secret in Asia" and plugs its food, shopping and "Quaint traditional villages thriving next to bustling city centers."

Volunteers say it's almost impossible to track how many times the letter has been sent or forwarded in the two months since it's been on the Web.

But senders are asked to relay a copy to the Web site for each message they send. At the end of last year, the site had received about 200,000 copies.

BETTING that each recipient will forward the message to at least ten people, the group says it hopes the message will be sent at least 50 million times by the midyear. Ms Lu estimates the nine organizers alone have sent out 8,000 messages.

According to Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board, tourist arrivals in 1997, the year the economic downturn began, fell about 13% from 7.1 million in 1996. Last year, arrivals rose about 10% but are still 4% below pre-recession days.

The people who show up, though, are spending more. Spending fell 6.3% during the first year of the downturn, but last year rose to an estimated US$3.1 billion. That is up 21% from 1997 and 14% from 1996.

"As a Malaysian," says Faridah Hussein, a deputy director of the tourism board," I feel it's a worthwhile effort." In fact, she's sent about 10 of the messages herself.

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