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Keep us off the tourism K list, says indignant Malaysia

April 18, 2019 Headline News No Comments Email Email

The US State Department has introduced a new ‘K’ indicator – a dreaded category that no country wants to be in – and Malaysia is outraged to find it has been included.

‘K’ stands for kidnapping.

Malaysia’s Daily Express reports that the country’s Foreign Ministry is urging the United States to immediately remove Malaysia from the ‘K’ list. It believes the ‘K’ listing is a total over-reaction and it has summoned the US ambassador for clarification.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly protests the decision of the US government to subject Malaysia in the newly-introduced ‘K’ indicator,” an official statement said.

Malaysia is now keen to attract more tourists, having lowered its tourism profile somewhat after the two tragedies suffered by Malaysia Airlines in 2014.

The US travel advisory for Malaysia is remarkably like Australia’s. Both the US and Australia advise their nationals to “exercise normal precautions” when visiting Malaysia, but give heavier advice for the eastern Sabah region.

The US government is apparently concerned about potential kidnapping or hostage-taking in certain areas of Malaysia’s eastern Sabah province.  Australia shares those concerns.

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, in objecting to the US State Department’s classification, said the new US travel advisory lacked objectivity and did not reflect the reality on the ground, particularly the security situation in eastern Sabah which remained safe and protected for tourists.

“This is borne by the fact that the number of tourist arrivals in Sabah has grown by 5.5%, reaching 3.87 million last year.

Sabah landscape

“Further, the number of kidnapping incidents has dropped significantly to almost nil. Eastern Sabah continues to attract world-class divers,” the statement said.

The Ministry credited this security success to proactive measures taken by the Malaysian Government, such as increasing the number of patrols, closer security cooperation with neighbouring countries and the strategic positioning of security assets to secure the areas.

“Given these facts, Malaysia urges the US to be more objective in its assessment. We urge the US to immediately remove Malaysia from the ‘K’ list. The US ambassador to Malaysia will be summoned to provide clarification on the new travel advisory,” the Ministry said.

More Australians visit Malaysia than Americans. In the seven months from January to September 2018 (latest figures available) 258,010 Australians visited Malaysia – which was about one third higher (+34.5%) than the number of Americans who visited over the same period: 191,797.

Here, for the record, is what the Americans advise their nationals:

Eastern Area of Sabah State – Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution

There is a threat of kidnappings-for-ransom from both terrorist and criminal groups. These groups may attack with little to no warning, targeting coastal resorts, island resorts, and boats ferrying tourists to resort islands. 

The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in eastern Sabah as U.S. government employees must obtain special authorization to travel to parts of eastern Sabah. 

The US advisory continues:

“Information from credible sources suggests that there is a continued risk of armed terrorist and criminal groups operating and planning attacks against foreigners, including U.S. citizens, in the East Asian and Pacific region.  Since 2014, Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 150 supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) terrorist group, including many individuals who planned to fight in Syria and Iraq.

US citizens are advised to use caution when traveling to eastern Sabah because of the threat of kidnappings-for-ransom and violence from both terrorist and criminal groups, including the Philippines-based Abu Sayyaf Group. In addition to incursions on coastal or resort islands themselves, criminal or terrorist groups may attempt to intercept boats ferrying tourists from the mainland to resort islands. 

In similar manner, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) advises Australian travellers to exercise normal safety precautions in Malaysia overall, but notes:

Reconsider your need to travel to the coastal resorts of eastern Sabah, including the islands, dive sites and associated tourist facilities, due to the high threat of kidnapping. The risk of kidnapping increases on the water and waterfront after nightfall and is highest in the area between the towns of Sandakan and Tawau.

Sabah wildlife

Here is what Australia advises its nationals:

There is an ongoing threat of terrorism in Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur and other major cities. Attacks could be indiscriminate and may affect locations popular with Westerners, including in Kuala Lumpur and other major cities.

In June 2016, a grenade attack was carried out by Islamic State (ISIL)-linked terrorists at a bar in Puchong, Kuala Lumpur. Eight people were injured. The group has threatened more attacks.

Malaysian authorities have arrested a number of persons involved in planning terror attacks, including against entertainment venues in Kuala Lumpur.  The Malaysian Government has increased the visibility of its response to the threat. Joint patrols by police and military are in place at public places around Kuala Lumpur, including shopping and entertainment venues. Other possible targets include hotels, clubs, restaurants, schools, markets, places of worship, outdoor recreation events and tourist areas.

Under the heading Kidnapping threat in Eastern Sabah, DFAT advises Aussie travellers:

There is a high threat of kidnapping in the coastal areas of eastern Sabah, including islands, dive sites and associated tourist facilities. Extremists based in the southern Philippines are particularly active in the area between the towns of Sandakan and Tawau in eastern Sabah. Foreigners have also been kidnapped from nearby islands (Sipadan and Mataking) and surrounding waters. The risk of kidnapping increases on the water and waterfront after nightfall.

A number of attempted and successful kidnappings have occurred in coastal areas of eastern Sabah in recent years. In November 2016, militants based in the southern Philippines attacked a yacht in waters between eastern Sabah and the Sulu archipelago. One German national was killed and another kidnapped. A number of commercial seamen were also kidnapped from cargo vessels in the area in 2016. In May 2015, gunmen entered a local seaside restaurant in Sandakan and abducted the manager and one customer (who was subsequently beheaded).

Written by Peter Needham

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