As taxis slow to crawling speed on their approach to the entrance of the Petronas Twin Towers, the building’s gleaming yet steely exterior is an imposing sight for the first-time visitor. The polished glass and steel structure is the world’s tallest twin tower, scaling some 88 floors. Home to the prestigious Suria KLCC shopping mall, as well as a plethora of other large enterprises – the most prominent being Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company Petronas – the Petronas Twin Towers has become the best known symbol of Kuala Lumpur globally.

Leading the tourism charge

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Created as a symbol of Kuala Lumpur’s modernisation, the Petronas Twin Towers are one of the leading tourist attractions in the city, and have played a prominent role in Kuala Lumpur becoming the eighth most visited city in the world according to a MasterCard index. While Malaysia remains a popular tourism destination – the United Nations World Tourism Organisation listed Malaysia as the 10th most visited country in 2012, and it attracted 25 million visitors in 2013 – Kuala Lumpur has been instrumental in promoting the country’s tourism industry. While Kuala Lumpur attracted 13 million tourists in 2012, according to Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism, the city has also emerged as a regional transportation hub.

Moreover, Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) has become a key port of access for visitors travelling to Malaysia and other countries in south-east Asia, thanks in no small part to the presence of domestic carrier Malaysia Airlines – though it has now fallen on hard times – as well as international carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Mandala Airlines, SEAir and Tiger Airways.

“Kuala Lumpur a very vibrant and modern city, and connectivity has really improved,” says Zainal Amanshah, the CEO of investment promotion agency InvestKL. “KLIA is a major hub – it is connected to 103 cities we have 1,991,990 weekly flights that depart from this airport, particularly following the opening of KLIA 2 [an extension to KLIA built to cater for low-cost flights].”

The right balance

Although Kuala Lumpur has become better known as a business and financial destination for multinational enterprises, InvestKL has also worked hard to promote the city as an alternative getaway for tourists seeking a balance of city life and culture. While Kuala Lumpur was rated by US media giant CNN as the fourth best shopping destination worldwide, the city’s local government has done much to promote it as a cultural and historical location.

Indeed, the sprawling Jamek Mosque, which is located a short drive away from the Petronas Twin Towers, offers visitors a glimpse of the country’s Muslim heritage, as it was Kuala Lumpur’s first ever brick mosque. Built in a Moorish style with white domes and surrounded by palm trees, the mosque is one of the city’s oldest sites of worship.

Yet this religious heritage is balanced by Malaysia’s colonial history, as positioned parallel to this mosque is the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, which served as one of the main administrative offices of the British colonial empire in Kuala Lumpur after it was built between 1894 and 1897. Meanwhile, the Independence Day Square, which faces this building, serves as a reminder to tourists of Malaysia’s independence from UK rule in 1957. This balance of shopping, entertainment, culture and religion is something that InvestKL is keen to promote to tourists to demonstrate Kuala Lumpur's diverse offering.

Transport challenge

Nevertheless, a common complaint among tourists is despite being a large metropolis, Kuala Lumpur has limited transportation options in and around the city. While the rise of low-cost carriers such as AirAsia has made tourism more affordable to a wider range of foreigners, the limited availability of cheap and affordable transportation around Kuala Lumpur remains a key issue.

Although the 'KL Hop-on Hop-Off Bus' – the city’s official tour bus which travels to 22 designated stops across the city – and the KL Monorail – which covers 11 stations in central Kuala Lumpur – have significantly improved transportation, there is criticism that little has been done to improve transportation outside of Kuala Lumpur's inner city. Indeed a common gripe among visitors to the Batu Caves, a popular Hindu shrine that lies 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, is that the only convenient way of getting there is by taxi, as buses to the area are limited and unreliable.

Moreover, while Kuala Lumpur has become well recognised as an international tourism destination, it has struggled to compete with other beach-based locations such as Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan on the Borneo island, and cities in the wider south-east Asia region such as Bali in Indonesia and Phuket in Thailand. Indeed, KLIA has emerged as a transit destination for tourists heading for more scenic beach resorts away from the city.

On the move

Keen not to underplay this issue, Mr Amanshah says that the local government has done much to tackle Kuala Lumpur's transportation constraints. Pointing to the Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) Project, which is currently under construction, Mr Amanshah says that when complete this three-line system will connect central Kuala Lumpur to Greater Kuala Lumpur and the wider Klang Valley. Consisting of two north-east and south-west lines and one circle line looping around Kuala Lumpur, Mr Amanshah is confident that this will do much to reduce the costs of travelling around the city.

“The MRT project, as well as our light rail train [LRT] is currently being upgraded,” he says. “While the bidding for the construction of lines two and three of the MRT is under way, these huge projects will be game changers.

"We are also looking at creating a high-speed rail that travels directly from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in 90 minutes. It will work like the Eurostar which connects London and Paris. [Visitors] can hop on a train to Singapore, have lunch, tea or dinner there and come back to Kuala Lumpur in the same day. We work hard and we are proud that this reflects in our rankings – the World Bank placed Malaysia sixth globally, we finished 15th in AT Kearney’s FDI Confidence Index, and Mercer ranked Kuala Lumpur as one of the least expensive [cities in Asia-Pacific]. I am very positive about our prospects.”