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Malaysia's tourism industry under dark cloud after aircraft disasters

KUALA LUMPUR -- An unprecedented second major aviation disaster in four months could further associate Malaysia with calamity in the eyes of travelers, observers warn, putting the tropical destination's vital tourism sector at risk.

Even before Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down on Thursday over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in an apparent missile strike, killing all 298 people on board, Malaysian tourism was under a cloud following the MH370 debacle.

Malaysia's March 8 loss of a jumbo jet with 239 people aboard and its widely mocked response hurt the country's image worldwide.

With most of the passengers on MH370 Chinese, tourist arrivals from China — an increasingly important travel-industry market on which Malaysia has pinned much of its hopes for visitor growth — dropped in the aftermath.

While the circumstances of the two disasters are markedly distinct, perception is key in branding, and the latest tragedy is expected to complicate efforts to repair Brand Malaysia's image.

“Malaysia's competency and governance are not under the spotlight to the same degree as in MH370,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia researcher at National Taiwan University, told AFP.

“This said, Malaysia Airlines and travel to Malaysia will be affected outside of Malaysia. The effects will not be as serious as MH370 but overall negative.”

In some Asian societies such as China, deeply held superstitions cause people to shun anything associated with death, and Beijing resident Quan Yi summed up a commonly held Chinese view toward Malaysia.

“I'm definitely not considering traveling to Malaysia,” he said.

“I had a few friends who went there for their honeymoon. People who wanted to go there are reconsidering because Malaysia is too dangerous to go now.”

Some in the tourism sector, however, say any impact may be short-lived as Malaysia's pristine rainforests and beaches, vibrant multiculturalism and food scene and an overall safe and visitor-friendly environment continue to draw discerning travelers.

Malaysia drew 25 million visitors in 2013 and 65 billion ringgit (US$20 billion) in tourism receipts, according to official data.

Hopes were high for 2014, which the government declared “Visit Malaysia Year” with plans to ramp up international promotional efforts centering on its years-long “Malaysia: Truly Asia” campaign familiar across the region.

Goals of 28 million visitors and 76 billion ringgit in receipts were set.

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Tourists walk at Mabul Water Bungalows Resort in Mabul Island, Sabah state on Borneo, Malaysia on Sunday, July 13. (AP)

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