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Bukit Bintang: Tourist hub for those from China, Middle East

Malaysia's shopping district in the Golden Triangle is known to be a shopping magnet for tourists, especially those from the Middle East.

Shops lining the Bukit Bintang area in Kuala Lumpur boast big luxury brands with their posh signs, while tour buses and taxis clog up the streets.

Foot traffic in the area alone easily hits 2.5 million visitors each month, with walkways expanded to make way for sidewalk cafes selling cups of RM15 (S$5) coffee.

Malaysia has long been an attraction for Chinese tourists seeking good food, while drawing in Middle East visitors looking for a holiday destination that also caters to their halal needs.

In 2016, Malaysia saw 2.12 million Chinese tourists and almost 300,000 tourists from the Middle East.

An Arab Street was opened by the government in 2005 so Middle Eastern tourists who wish to get a taste of home can do so, with over a dozen Arabic eateries. Meanwhile, the night scene at the edge of the district pulls in a mix of locals, expatriates and Western tourists.

Bukit Bintang also houses one of the city's oldest malls, Sungei Wang, which has survived changes since the 1970s despite competition from other malls in the same row.

The entire Bukit Bintang area has seen a massive transformation over the last two decades.

One of the city's pioneering shopping enclaves, Bukit Bintang has nine malls, dozens of hotels and guest houses, and plenty of eateries and bars to cater to various types of visitors.

Development in the area saw a century-old girls' school making way for the Pavilion Shopping Mall, and old office buildings were turned into trendy boutique hotels.

Stores are also required to be refurbished every few years, while a new underpass that opened earlier last year caters to a rising number of pedestrians.

All that effort has paid off. A survey by Tourism Malaysia in 2015 found that Bukit Bintang is the top shopping area that foreign tourists go to when in the country.

Even as visitors tour other parts of Malaysia, many still make brief stops in Kuala Lumpur, with Bukit Bintang as one of the go-to spots - it is located less than 1km away from the iconic Petronas Twin Towers.


China hails 'first Antarctica flight' for its tourists

According to Chinese media, the country's first commercial flight to Antarctica brought 22 lucky tourists to the exotic destination this weekend.

The trip is hailed as a milestone - but is it really? And what does it tell us about China's geopolitical ambitions in the region?

Is it really a first? Described in Chinese papers as the beginning of a new era in the country's tourism to Antarctica, the trip took the select few from Hong Kong all the way to the actual South Pole.

That meant a 15-hour flight to South Africa, refuelling in Cape Town and then another 5.5 hours to Antarctica. From there, it's another five to six hours to the pole, where the flight landed on a 2.5-km (1.5-mile) runway carved into the ice.

The Chinese tour operator describes the trip as a milestone, saying it means Chinese tourists no longer have to book via foreign agencies.

But how much of a first was it really?

The leg from Cape Town onwards was in fact organised by White Desert, a tour operator who offers such trips to the pole on a regular basis.

That means it was rather a co-operation between a Chinese tour organiser and one of the established players based in South Africa.

Does a trip that long strike you as something of an ordeal? Just consider that the usual tourist route is significantly longer.

What is there to see? Heading to the seventh continent by plane is the exception rather than the rule. Almost all tourists come by boat - typically from Argentina's southernmost port of Ushuaia.

Another option is from New Zealand - a route often picked by people interested in a more historical itinerary tracing the footsteps of famous past explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton for instance.

"Trips differ in length - they can be six days to three weeks or even longer," Leanne Flanagan Smith of tour operator BackTrack Adventures told the BBC.

Why do people want to go there? There are many reasons, she says.

"For some people it's simply a bucket list thing - it's their seventh continent and they want to tick it off. Others come for the wildlife but usually end up being more impressed and overwhelmed by the ice and the spectacular landscapes," she say.

Travel season is during the Antarctic summer from November until the end of March. What's the price tag? The cheapest options will cost you around $5,000 (£3,750) - that's by boat from Ushuaia so you'll still have a substantial additional air fare just to get to Argentina.

Can Antarctica cope with mass tourism? On the whole, visitor numbers are going up.

After having reached an all-time high of 46,265 visitors in the 2007-2008 season, visitor numbers dropped in the following years due to the global economic crisis.

But numbers have been steadily on the rise again over the past years. Last season 44,367 tourists visited the continent and numbers are expected to keep rising.

Should tourists be banned from Antarctica? The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was created to promote a safe and environmentally responsible tourism industry and works closely with the Antarctic Treaty Parties, which is a partnership of more than 50 countries jointly governing the continent.

There's still room for more tourists, Amanda Lynnes of IAATO told the BBC. "But continuous monitoring is absolutely key," she added.

The tour operators are following very strict guidelines laid by the organisation, according to Ms Lynnes.

One such rule for instances is that there can never be more than 100 people on shore at any one landing point at any one time.

Once on land there are also strict rules - even detailing how close you are allowed to walk up to a penguin.

What's the geopolitical angle?

"This is very symbolic," explains Dr Nengye Liu of the University of Adelaide. "It ties in with the bigger picture of China getting more and more actively involved in Antarctic affairs."

Chinese tourists already make up the second largest group of visitors, second only to those from the US.

The number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica has grown significantly in recent years, from fewer than 100 in 2008 to 3,944 in 2016.

And if the steep rise in interest from past years is anything to go by, Chinese visitors will soon top the table.

"In Chinese media, this is presented as the first time that tourists can travel through a Chinese operator," Mr Liu says. "Of course it's extremely expensive but it does showcase China's growing interest in the region."

Since 2013, China has identified the polar regions as one of the country's new strategic frontiers. And that means there's a strong political will in being part of how the governing of the poles will be shaped in the future.

At the recent Communist Party Congress, Beijing's new five-year plan clearly stated that the government wanted to invest huge amounts of money in projects towards the exploration of the poles.

"Eventually, China's ambition is that they will be able to put forward their own proposal to influence how the two polar regions will be governed," Mr Liu says.

Despite the current example of a top-of-the-menu extravaganza all the way to the pole, most Chinese tourists of course take the normal route by cruise ship from South America.

In fact, only 1% of tourists fly to the interior of the continent.

"A flight that takes you to Antarctica and then continuing on to the actual Pole with another plane - that's really just for the bucket list people: tourists that really want to tick off the South Pole and can afford it," Ms Flanagan Smith says.


Is a cap on tourists at the Taj Mahal a sign of things to come?

Tightropes are not confined to circuses and the occasional sepia photo of a daredevil trying to walk across the Grand Canyon on a single stretch of cable. Tourism is the owner of a long and wobbly high-wire which crops up all over the planet - particularly in those locations where epic heritage rubs against a keen desire to bear witness to it.

Anyone who has been to Rome and ambled into the Colosseum - or flown to the heights of Peru and strolled the cobbles of Machu Picchu - will know the problem. People. Loads and loads and loads of people - milling around in what are often fragile contexts.

On the one hand, you have sites of inestimable historic worth. On the other you have a global population that has never travelled more, and never been better informed about the glories in its midst.

How can these two elements occupy the same precarious ropeway without everybody falling off? How do you prevent the planet's wanderlust and curiosity from damaging its own yesterdays; from ruining everything that makes us want to reach for our cameras? And how to do it in an epoch when so many have the time and the money to see what they want, whenever they want to - and at whatever price?

This issue - protecting the past, or profiting from it - has come to the fore again this week with the news that India is considering imposing limits on the number of tourists able to visit the Taj Mahal.

As headlines go, this one hardly comes as a surprise. The crush of humanity that generally envelops what is surely the most famous mausoleum on the planet can be an exhausting experience. A morning at the Taj Mahal is usually an exercise in survival - an attritional process of pushing, jostling and trying to keep out of the way of carelessly wafted selfie sticks. It makes the final resting place of an empress resemble an electronics store during the opening hours of the Boxing Day sales.

This glorious Agra landmark is, of course, a totem of grief and love - commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in tribute to his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. It was meant to be a symbol of serenity. Yet time in its company can feel anything but serene, whatever the image conveyed by that iconic picture of a solitary Princess Diana, seated on a bench in front of the structure, in February 1992. If ever there were a tourist attraction where numbers need to be limited, this might be it.

This is not just a matter of overcrowding. It is one of preservation. The Taj Mahal has been suffering for some time. The pale marble from which it was so carefully crafted is being yellowed by air pollution. The River Yamuna which runs alongside it is dank and contaminated. It is assaulted by monkeys, who clamber up its facade. It plays host to eight million souls per year, when the blueprint envisaged it as the home of just one.

However, talk of, on some level, curtailing access to it, raises a number of questions.

The first is: How will this cap work?

Plans are still vague, but under proposals submitted to the country's tourism ministry by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the most probable course of action is that domestic tourists will be limited to a total of 40,000 per day, with individual visits being restricted to three hours per person.

The second question is: Is this fair? The key phrase in the paragraph above is not "40,000 per day", but "domestic tourists" - the Indian travellers who are currently allowed to pay 40 Rupees (46p) for entry to the site.

It is they, rather than international visitors - who are currently asked to cough up the stiffer cost of 1,000 Rupees (£11.63) - who will bear the brunt of the likely changes.

True, Indians will still be able to purchase the higher-priced international ticket - for which numbers will not be limited - if the day's domestic quota has already been reached. But in a developing country where the average daily wage is 270 Rupees (£3.14), this will be a prohibitive amount for many. Imagine the fury if a similar policy was adopted at Stonehenge or Westminster Abbey.

The third question is: Will this make any difference?

And the answer is: Almost certainly not.

Even the most rudimentary mathematical calculations show why. Forty thousand domestic tourists a day equates to 14.6million people over the course of a year - and that is before you add in international visitors. This suggests that the current official annual head-count of eight million is a massive under-estimate. The Taj Mahal is enormously over-subscribed, and a tinkering with tickets is not going to change this.

The rethink seems to have been sparked by a disturbing incident last month - a small stampede at the east entry gate on December 28 that saw five people sustain injuries as late-comers tried to force their way into the complex just before closing time. The Taj Mahal is also, according to some sources, currently in the "bad books" of Uttar Pradesh's (the state in which Agra sits) recently elected Hindu nationalist government - whose leader, Yogi Adityanath, reportedly views it as an Islamic monument at odds with his country's past (he has said that the mausoleum does "not reflect Indian culture"). It remains to be seen whether the idea of limiting numbers at the Taj Mahal is hot air based on recent events - or evidence of a determination to tackle an issue.

But whether this is lip service or concerned forward planning, any indication of a desire to tackle the Taj Mahal's people problem is part of a growing trend.

Peru took a step towards safeguarding the future of Machu Picchu last June when it announced a new ticketing system which has limited the number of people able to plod round the Andean citadel at any one time. There has been similar talk of staunching the flow of tourists through the Cinque Terre villages of north-western Italy, using a "traffic light" system for its coastal paths (although nothing has yet materialised).

The planet is heading, slowly, towards a time, when its most celebrated sites are not freely available to all who wish to enjoy them. It may be that this is done through the brute economics of restricting them to those who can afford to pay for the privilege - a policy which will spark anger, frustration and no little debate.

But Mumtaz Mahal's mausoleum will not be the last place to look at the crowds at its gates, and declare "not today, thank you."


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