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Asia Targets Tourism, Education Boost from Trump Travel Ban

FILE - An AirAsia counter staff attends to a customer at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, Aug. 28, 2016.
FILE - An AirAsia counter staff attends to a customer at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia, Aug. 28, 2016.

Seeking to capitalize on U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial new travel restrictions, companies and officials in Asia said they would target greater tourism and education ties with Muslims worried about the curbs.

Trump's Friday directive put a 120-day hold on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a 90-day bar on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, the group CEO of Asia's largest budget airline, AirAsia, suggested countries in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could cash in.

"With the world now getting more isolationist it's time for ASEAN to start making it easier for tourists to come," Tony Fernandes said in a tweet on Tuesday.

Malaysia is a popular destination for tourists from the Middle East, with nearly 200,000 arriving in 2016 from countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Qatar.

The country is also a key destination for medical tourism and halal tourism, with food and other products largely halal-certified.

In neighboring Thailand, tourism officials said the U.S. ban could lift visitor numbers.

"The Middle East is a big market for us, especially in the medical tourism sector. They may choose to visit Thailand more and this may also boost our sector," Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters.

Safety and security

Trump has presented his ban as a way to protect the United States from Islamist militants, but it has been condemned by a growing list of foreign leaders and drawn protests by tens of thousands in American cities.

With concerns about safety and security building, some Asians were reconsidering U.S. travel plans and seeking alternatives, even though their countries were not subject to the restrictions.

"When you want to travel, especially for leisure, then you want peace of mind," said Alicia Seah, director of public relations and communications at Singapore's Dynasty Travel. S.M. Tareque, managing director of Orchid, a travel agency in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, said he had cancelled his own trip fearing harassment at U.S. airports.

He said he knew of five people who were immigrating to the United States who had put their plans on hold.

Tougher vetting

Trump has argued tougher vetting of immigrants is needed to protect America from attacks, but critics complain that his order unfairly singles out Muslims and defiles America's historic reputation as a welcoming place for immigrants.

Keysar Trad, president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, said Trump's travel restrictions were not only hurting innocent people but were "bringing great damage to his own economy and to the standings of Americans internationally".

"Everyone who has relatives in America, whether they are from the countries listed or not, they are petrified of what this man is going to do to America and to their relatives," Trad told Reuters.

Some education providers had seen early signs of an impact. Ajay Mital, director at International Placewell Consultants in New Delhi, which places Indian students in universities abroad, said Germany and Singapore had stepped up efforts to recruit students.

Prospective students were worried that, even if they were able to go to the United States for education, they would not get a job at the end of their studies with the tighter work visa rules that the new administration has said it may bring in.

"Trump has created panic here," Mital said. "Of particular concern are plans to review the Optional Practical Training, or OPT, program which gives foreign graduates in fields like science, technology, engineering or maths the right to find jobs in the U.S. for up to 36 months. Tomorrow he may end the OPT."

Looking elsewhere

Delhi-based IT professional Kanishk Singh had applied to more than a dozen U.S. universities for a master’s course in creative writing. He received an email from Indiana University warning him that visa processing for international students was going to be hit after President Trump's latest orders.

"If I don't get to the U.S., I will apply for UK," he said. Rod Jones, CEO of Australian-listed education firm Navitas Ltd, said the company had seen a downturn in inquiries for their U.S.-based English language courses.

"We have started to see students back off from the U.S. because of their concerns about potential issues they may face," Jones told analysts on an earnings call.

"But they still want to go somewhere," Jones added, identifying Canada and Australia as important alternatives. "The Canadian Prime Minister has come out and said 'if the U.S. doesn't want you, we'd love to have you' and I think it is the approach of Australia too."

Aulia Adila, 24, a young professional in the media industry in Jakarta, had been considering the United States as an option for postgraduate study.

"When Trump had a chance of winning the election this made me reconsider going to the States to study. Now that he won, and with the Muslim ban and the new migrant policy, it's becoming even more impossible and unsafe to be in America," Adila said.

"I'm considering another country where I'll feel safe."