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MM2H Agents Association Second National Workshop 2015
MM2H Centre in collaboration with MM2H Agents Association (MM2HAA) will organize MM2H 2nd National Workshop 2015 on 15th October 2015 (Thursday) at the Multipurpose Hall, Ministry of Tourism and...
In search of new horizons Print E-mail
Tuesday, 21 September 2010 00:00

Along Sisowath Quay in the heart of Phnom Penh the nightlife is humming. Dozens of bars ranging from the upmarket to the down and dirty are plying a brisk trade, and it's a scene that is repeated across the Cambodian capital and in the tourist towns of Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.

Many of the bars and restaurants are owned by foreigners, middle-income earners at home who opted for a Southeast Asian adventure. Trekking along the same route are plumbers, carpenters, wine merchants, magazine proprietors, actors, doctors and nurses.

This stands in stark contrast toa decade ago when the number of foreign-owned small business operators was limited to the tentative few who ventured in during the first years of peace.

Across the Gulf of Thailand, in Malaysia, well-heeled Westerners are also setting-up shop _ butchers, bakeries, designer boutiques,security firms, media production houses and bars _ bringing the jobs they once did back home to Southeast Asia.

Malaysia and Cambodia are stand outs in their ability to attract small business from foreign shores, baby boomers and younger providing a lucrative boost to their adopted economies.

This is partially because other potential destinations are seen as problematic.

Bali is over-crowded while red-tape, complicated home ownership laws and security issues dog the rest of Indonesia and The Philippines.

Singapore is expensive. Communist Vietnam and Laos remain state planned and their reputation for belligerency _ while an improvement upon Burma _ still serves as an anathema for mum and dad type investments.

Amid this, Thailand should expect to fare well.

But the State of Emergency mixed with perceptions of violence and social upheaval abroad, alongside tight restrictions on visas and the movement of foreign currencies, has the Land of Smiles missing out to its southern and eastern neighbours.

"Malaysia is indeed safer than Thailand and also is a multi-racial country as well," Farzana Ali, an operations manager for the Malaysia My Second Home programme (MM2H) told Spectrum from Kuala Lumpur where she focuses on West Malaysia.

The Malaysian government started targeting middle-aged Westerners looking to retire through MM2H about eight years ago with momentum gathering pace over the last three years.

More than 12,000 people have joined, taking advantage of a 10-year, unlimited multiple-entry visa, along with tax breaks on vehicle purchases and access to freehold land.

"Expats don't need any minimum stay. There are no restrictions whatsoever for the length of stay, they are free to go and come to Malaysia whenever they like," she said.

Expats are also allowed to work up to 20 hours a week for local wages, however, they will need to deposit a refundable 150,000 ringgit (1.48 million baht) as a surety.

Regardless of the programme, most foreigners are granted a three-month entry on arrival at the Malaysian border, by far the most generous in Southeast Asia in particular when compared with Thailand.

Thailand's reputation as a safe destination is also troubling.

Perceptions, perhaps not always justified, were already burnished by the scamming of tourists and attacks on foreigners like the rape and murder of 21-year-old British backpacker Katherine Horton in 2006.

Travel warnings by foreign governments of possible terrorist attacks are not uncommon amid the ongoing insurgency in the country's south and irregular bombings. The closure of Bangkok's airports and the killing of two foreign journalists earlier this year amid the casualties caused by the red and yellow shirt conflict enshrined negative perceptions of Thailand abroad.

There is a shortage of statistical evidence that can offer an insightful picture into foreign-led small business growth. Few governments publish at this level and tourist figures are misleading.

Given the circumstances and the global financial crisis, Thailand's tourist industry has levelled off and held up well over the last three years despite fluctuations that tend to reflect the political turmoil. Authorities are hoping for 15 million visitors this year.

But the numbers pale in significance when taking into account that Malaysia is far ahead in the tourist stakes anyway, attracting 23.65 million visitors in 2009, while Cambodia is coming off an extremely low base to garner 2.165 million tourists last year.

A report released on Sept 3 by the UN World Tourism Organization showed Thai tourist numbers were up by 14% in the first half of 2010. A woeful performance _ if the numbers are to be believed _ compared with other countries competing for the same tourist dollar.

Sri Lanka was the best performer, up 49%, Vietnam and Burma were both up 35% and even Fiji _ which like Thailand endured a military coup in 2006 and years of political strife since then _ witnessed a 22% jump in tourists.

Across another Thai border, in Cambodia, the dynamics are different and the anecdotal evidence persuasive. Phnom Penh once relied heavily on Thailand for access to the outside world, throughout the decades of war and in the early years of peace.

In 2003, in the aftermath of the anti-Thai riots that resulted in the razing of Thai interests in the Cambodian capital _ including total destruction of its embassy _ Bangkok retaliated by closing the border and effectively shutting Cambodia down.

Access to regular trade and an embryonic tourism industry stopped.

Seven years later, and that scenario has changed with direct flights to most East Asian cities, increased border crossings with Vietnam and Laos and an almost complete national highway grid that nearby countries are coming to rely upon for access to Thailand.

Derek Mayes, Social Director of the Australian Business Association of Cambodia, said the country was also filling up with people from Russia, the "stan" countries, and Africans from larger companies and the more affluent semi-retired.

In many quarters, he said the country was preferred over Thailand for multiple reasons. "Easier visa requirements, it's easier to start up smaller businesses and has stable government. Also much cheaper living costs and growth in the availability of imported goods," he said.

Cambodia offers most nationalities multi-entry six- to 12-month visas on arrival. The visa process in Thailand, Vietnam and Laos often requires periodic visa runs _ sometimes once a month _ into neighbouring countries for extensions.

Mr Mayes, also a bar and restaurant owner, said tight visa restrictions meant competing neighbours were unlikely to benefit from a boom in the expat market, while Cambodia would continue to benefit at Thailand's expense "unless additional restrictions on residence visas become law".

"There is an increase of retirees living in regional areas, such as the coastal areas and in the river lands. There is also an obvious increase in younger expats deciding to seek their fame and fortune in a foreign land," he said.

There has also been an increase in the number of Western owned Thai-based businesses moving across the border into Cambodia, Mr Mayes said, especially along the coastal areas of Sihanoukville and Koh Kong.

His sentiments are echoed as far away as East Malaysia, where Mike Steel works for Borneo Vision, which promotes the MM2H programme in Sabah, an East Malaysian state that remains off the well trodden tourist paths of Asia due largely to its remoteness.

Cheaper airfares and communications is changing that and opening up Borneo to a wider audience keen to make the most of an area that can still boast most of the trappings that gave Southeast Asia its original allure.

That includes orangutans, pigmy elephants and a wildlife population akin with Africa, tropical rain forests and waterfalls and beaches unfettered by developers. It also has a world top five dive spot and the highest mountain range in the region.

"There's plenty of space with a population of less than three million people in an area the size of Scotland," Mr Steel, a stiff upper-lip Englishman, said.

"Housing is much cheaper, there are good flight connections, English is widely spoken amid a wide mix of races and religions and it's less polluted."

He said the biggest complaints were levelled against taxi drivers who refused to charge by the metre and rubbish dropped on the beach.

"Security is also better in Sabah as the police are not corrupt and they are tasked to assist tourists and expats. Normal precautions are required as burglary is an issue in some areas. Obviously be careful late at night."

But at the end of the day, Mr Steel said, it was Malaysia's visa regime, like Cambodia's, and a sense of security that was attracting Westerners to invest their retirement dollars in Sabah _ beating out Thailand which only five years ago was the regional magnet for the baby boomer buck.

Source: http://m.bangkokpost.com/articledetail.php?channelID=1&articleID=197020



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