Nuryahati Sailima, 24, of Selangor, Malaysia, did not mind at all that she had to wear a surgical mask for about an hour on an Air Asia flight that flew her from Kuala Lumpur to Bandung, the capital of West Java, last Friday.
The swine flu issue has prompted the Malaysian government to take precautionary steps by obliging its citizens to wear masks on plane trips. However, this did not hinder Nurhayati's determination to bring her two-year-old daughter and her mother to visit Bandung.
"I want to go to Pasar Baru to look for cheap textiles," said Nurhayati who spent three days in Bandung shopping and eating out.
Nurhayati was picked up by a tour guide from a local travel agent. Most Malaysians use the services of travel agents because they feel more secure.
Ahmad Zulkifli and his three friends, on the other hand, came to Bandung from Kuala Lumpur on their own. Zulkifli, 27, said that he had visited Bandung four times prior to this trip for the delicious food and shopping bargains.
"The textiles and garments here are equal to those in Singapore, while the prices are much lower," said Zulkifli.
Pasar Baru, lines of distros and factory outlets on Jl. Juanda (Dago), Jl. Martadinata (Riau) as well as Jl. Setiabudi are the main places where Malaysian tourists spend most of their money. Jeans outlets also attract these tourists and make them feel at home.
Air Asia started its flights to Bandung way back in 2004 and since then Malaysians have flooded the city. Zulkifli said that the Air Asia fare to Bandung was cheaper than to Jakarta.
Bandung in Zukifli's opinion is very attractive as the city is not too large and has many shady areas and colonial buildings. It is quite different from Jakarta, with its entertainment spots and modern malls, which still do not compare with those of Kuala Lumpur.
"I don't want to belittle Jakarta, but Bandung is quite unique. Here one can still find many friendly people to talk with," explained Zulkifli.
He said that he did not experience any inconvenience even though he had not booked a hotel room in advance, because he and his friends already knew of a hotel that suited their travel budget.
Zulkifli said that they did not mind that the facilities at the hotel were basic, because they spent most of their time in the city.
Data at the Bandung Tourism Office indicates that in 2007 about 130,000 foreign tourists visited the city, while in 2008 the figure rose to 137,000. Each Malaysian tourist spends between 2,000 and 3,000 ringgit during their stay in Bandung.
The presence of Malaysians has made the ringgit acceptable currency for transactions in Pasar Baru. Out of the total foreign tourists 60 percent are Malaysians.
The global economic downturn has not had a negative effect on the number of Malaysian tourists who frequently visit Bandung. The West Java Statistics Agency's records indicate that in April 2009 there were 5,918 Malaysian tourists who arrived at Bandung's Husein Sastranegara Airport, which means almost 90 percent of the total foreign tourist arrivals (6,915) in that month.
Nurhayati said that shopping in Bandung was more attractive than in Singapore.
"Here I can get three scarves for the price of one in Malaysia," she said.
Meanwhile Zulkifli was of the opinion that most factory outlets and distros, which made available excess garments from export and import stock with low price tags, attracted tourists because they were in old buildings that looked just like conventional homes. This look, he said, actually made shopping in Bandung more attractive compared to the modern malls found in large cities.
"I don't know why, but this style simply attracts me to shop here," he said.
He also explained that he could purchase a T-shirt with a unique design for between 20 and 40 ringgit only. He can get an even cheaper one, for only 8 ringgit or about Rp 20,000, at Cihampeulas area.
The creativity of Bandung residents has lured many tourists to enjoy shopping and culinary tourism in about 1,100 integrated locations covering factory outlets, distribution outlets (distro), restaurants and caf*s.
The city's creative energy in fashion, accessories, restaurants and other miscellaneous merchandise is the largest contributor to West Java's industry and trade income totaling almost 49 percent with a revenue of Rp 25 billion per month or Rp 300 billion annually.
Dharmadi, president director of Air Asia Indonesia, recently said that Bandung had very good prospects as the number of foreign tourists was increasing significantly every year. Originally the airline only had two flights per week for the Bandung - Kuala Lumpur route that began in April 2004. In 2008 the route carried a total number of 160,000 passengers, as a result at the end of the year the frequency of flights was increased to three times per week.
This is the reason Air Asia has repeatedly requested the West Java province administration to make the Husein Sastranegara airport runway thicker, which is also related to Air Asia's plan to use an Airbus 320 with a capacity of 180 seats for the new Bandung-Singapore route this year.
The thickness of a runway or Pavement Classification Number (PCN) for A-320 with full cargo must be at least 52 centimeters, while the current PCN is only 37 centimeters.
"An overlay of 15 centimeters is required for a better landing for an Airbus 320," said Dharmadi after a meeting with West Java Governor Ahmad Heryawan, in Bandung, early 2009.
In its latest expansion, Air Asia Indonesia has also opened new flights between Bali and Bandung starting July 17, 2009.
"One Boeing 737.300 will fly between Denpasar and Bandung daily for seven days a week, carrying a maximum of 148 passengers," said Widijastoro Nugroho, the marketing and distribution director of the company.
Widi explained that boutique shops in Bali have apparently got their products and materials from Bandung, making travel between the two cities frequent. The response to the new route has been tremendous, with 80 percent of its flights in August already booked.
Deputy chairman of West Java Chamber of Commerce for Tourism and Communications, Yahya Mahmud, said that in his opinion direct flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were vital to boost the number of foreign tourists to the city. He also said that Bandung was a promising city, tourism wise.
"This city is a shopping heaven that must be introduced to more and more foreign tourists besides Malaysians," said Yahya.