38 21 5 LINKEDIN 8 COMMENTMORE

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the mystery of what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines flight deepens, tourism officials and agents say they don't expect a significant impact on visitors seeking this nation's beaches and cultural diversity.

The country hopes to lure 28 million foreign tourists this year, up from 25.7 million last year, said Tuan Razali Tuan Omar, deputy director of domestic marketing at Tourism Malaysia, a state agency.

"I don't expect a drop in arrivals as there are other airlines people can come on to Malaysia," said Tuan, adding Malaysia Airlines has an excellent safety record.

Still, at the major tourism fair where Tuan was advertising Friday in the Malaysian capital, much of the talk among exhibitors and visitors centered on the aircraft that went missing on a Beijing-bound flight from Kuala Lumpur early Saturday.

"The specter of tragedy that is MH370 looms over us all, and its impact on this nation will resonate for many years to come," said Hamzah Rahmat, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, in a speech to open the group's annual trade fair. "To Malaysia Airlines, our national carrier, we stand behind you through these difficult times."

Malaysia — a nation of 30 million whose government pronounced 2014 "Visit Malaysia Year" — remains little known to most U.S. travelers — 247,000 visited in 2013 — but Tuan said he is hopeful that number will climb.

As the sixth largest contributor to gross national income, tourism "is a catalyst for developing the economy and an important agenda of socioeconomic development," Tuan said.

LATEST: Plane search shifts to islands far from flight path

On Tioman Island, a scenic setting used to film the 1958 blockbuster South Pacific, the Salang Pusaka Resort targets a 15% rise in guests this year, said Mohd Anwar Ibrahim, 27, a sales executive.

"The plane will only have a small impact as Malaysia is not a dangerous place," he said. "But I've been thinking, 'What would I do if I was on that plane?' All I can do for them is pray, and I have, every day at a mosque on Tioman. We talk about this every day, and I check online as soon as I wake up."

At the Titi Eco-Farm Resort, less than two hours' drive from Kuala Lumpur, executive Siti Nor Haderani, 32, prays each day, at her home, for the missing passengers and crew.

"I still have hope, as they haven't found it yet in the ocean. Maybe it landed somewhere but with no communication," she said. "This is very unusual."

Travel agent Mohammad Fuad Amin, 30, talks with his wife "every hour, every minute" about MH370, he said.

"Some Malaysians have doubts that we can hear everything from our media, as they keep secrets for security reasons, so we follow the foreign news as there is more speculation," Mohammad said. "We're desperate for information."

Back at his exhibition, Tuan said he hopes MH370, a flight number the airline has permanently retired, won't deter potential visitors from Malaysia's many attractions and "culture you can't find at home."

His top tip? Sipadan Island. "It's a diver's dream, like a big aquarium," he said.

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
38 21 5 LINKEDIN 8 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1iKiBYJ