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Malaysia Southeast Asia’s Most Visited Country in 2023
01 April 2024 | Written by Chris Alexander

A new study has revealed that Malaysia was the most visited country in Southeast Asia during 2023 – further indication of the nation’s recovery and meteoric rise since the end of the pandemic era. Malaysia welcomed a total of 29 million tourists last year, outstripping more established neighbours in the process.

To put Malaysia’s achievement into perspective, second-placed Thailand had set the gold standard prior to the pandemic, with 40 million arrivals in 2019. Malaysia is already approaching that level, without the same long-term tourism pedigree as the Land of Smiles. This is a clear indication that Malaysia is emerging as a major new player in Southeast Asia’s inbound tourism sector.

A report by Focus Malaysia reveals that the main source market driving Malaysia’s growth in 2023 was Singapore, followed by other regional neighbours Indonesia, Thailand, China and Brunei. Vietnam was placed fourth in the report, with 12.6 million visitors; while Indonesia welcomed 11.7 million arrivals. Third place was taken by Singapore, which recorded 13.6 million foreign tourists in 2023.

Many tourism industry observers have attributed Malaysia’s success, in part, to its timely use of visa relaxation policies. It’s no coincidence that both Malaysia and Thailand offered similar  30-day visa-free entry for citizens of China and India – two key source markets that both re-entered the fold a little later than their Schengen counterparts.

In Vietnam, the government has granted three-month tourist visas for citizens of all nations and tripled the length of stay permitted to 45 days for citizens of 13 countries who are unilaterally exempted from visas. This move, implemented last August, is expected to bump Vietnam up in the regional rankings during 2024.

Similarly, in neighbouring Indonesia, Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno revealed in December that his government was weighing up a policy similar to Malaysia’s. Under the new arrangement, citizens of 20 more countries will be able to enjoy visa-free access, including the United States, China, Australia, India, South Korea, Germany, the UK and France.

Spurred on by attractive visa arrangements and an endless array of destinations to choose from, tourism arrivals in Southeast Asia are steadily approaching their pre-pandemic level. Experts are forecasting that soon, nations will not only meet but also surpass these milestones. On this journey, Malaysia is leading the way.