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Disappearance of Flight 370 may affect travel to Malaysia

Has the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 nearly two weeks ago had an effect on travel to the Asian country?

It depends on who you talk to.

A Germany-based hotel booking website says it has seen a significant drop in searches among U.S. users looking for hotels in Malaysia since the flight disappeared. But Malaysian tourism officials say they have seen no decline in travel to the country.

The Boeing 777, carrying 239 people, disappeared March 8, sparking a massive search across miles of open sea and theories such as terrorism and alien abduction.

International travel to Malaysia is key to the country's steadily improving economy whose biggest industries include electronics, petroleum and palm oil production. Tourism is also a major source of revenue, with 26 million travelers visiting Malaysia in 2013 and spending nearly $20 billion.

The hotel booking site Trivago said it has seen a 22% drop in U.S. users searching for hotels in Malaysia in the 10 days after the plane disappeared, compared with the same period before the plane went missing.

The site also reported an 18% drop in searches for Malaysian hotels from Australian users and a 22% drop in searches from New Zealand.

But a senior Malaysian government official said the numbers of seats filled on flights to Malaysia, including Malaysia Airlines, "have not shown any drastic reduction."

"Some business travelers may have opted for alternative carriers, but large tour groups have gone [to Malaysia] as usual," Malaysia tourism Director General Mirza Mohammad Taiyab told reporters in India, where he was promoting tourism to his country. "Leisure and vacation tourism have also remained at the same levels."

India is Malaysia's top source of tourists, and the Malaysian government is on a campaign to boost travel from India even further.

Still, other Malaysian tourism officials who were visiting India on Thursday told reporters that they expect a drop in travel from China because most of the passengers on Flight 370 were from there.

But travel experts in the U.S. say there are no clear signs of any change in travel patterns from the U.S. since the flight went missing.

The Airlines Reporting Corp., an Arlington, Va., company that handles ticketing transactions between the nation's airlines and travel agents, said transactions have not shown a drop in ticket sales from the U.S. to Malaysia but that a final tally won't be complete until April.

Travel to Malaysia has not declined dramatically because most travelers understand that this is an isolated incident, said Peter Benson, manager of the Southern California chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Assn., which specializes in travel to Malaysia and surrounding countries.

"Most people are realistic," he said. "Anyone who flies realizes that air travel is still the safest way to travel."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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