Malaysia is bracing itself for a sharp decline in Chinese visitor arrivals as backlash from the MH370 crisis hits its image in the country's third largest - and fastest growing - tourist market.
The 600-member Malaysian Chinese Tourism Association is expecting a 40 per cent drop in inbound bookings in the coming months from China, which accounted for nearly 1.8 million visitors last year, behind only Singapore and Indonesia.
"In a short time, we will see an effect. Our agents in China see a lot of boycott talk on the Internet and Facebook," said Mr Paul Paw, president of the association.
The world's largest tourist market by spending is also Malaysia's fastest growing, rising to 1.8 million visitors last year from 1.56 million in 2012.
But intense media coverage on angry and grief-stricken relatives of some of the Chinese passengers on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines (MAS) jetliner, which has been missing since March 8, has fuelled talk of a general Malaysia boycott.
Tourism and Culture Minister Mohamed Nazri Aziz admitted that the crisis would "definitely affect tourism from China for some time".
"No doubt. We have no indications, in money terms, how much this will affect us, but it will," he told The Straits Times yesterday.
Malaysia has no plans in place to counter the backlash.
Datuk Seri Nazri added: "If the Visit Malaysia Year is not successful this year, they can come the year after or beyond. It's not urgent. We want to respect the sensitivity of the families first."
On Monday, he said in Parliament that all overseas promotional activities for Visit Malaysia Year 2014, a bumper year for tourism events, had been halted temporarily out of respect for families of the missing passengers.
Emotions boiled over on Monday night when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced at a late- night press conference that fresh analysis of satellite data concluded that the missing MAS plane crashed into the Indian Ocean, south-west of Perth, although no wreckage has been recovered.
Families of mainland Chinese passengers and the Chinese media have been critical of Malaysia's handling of the MH370 crisis, with some accusing investigators of hiding information on the location of their relatives.
Many Chinese, among them celebrities, expressed their anger on social media platforms, with some calling for a boycott of Malaysian goods and urging others not to visit the country.
Actor Chen Kun said he would not buy Malaysian products, and would not travel to Malaysia due to the "lack of respect that the Malaysian government and MAS showed for the lives of my fellow citizens".
"The boycott will be for an unlimited duration... It will continue until the Malaysian government comes clean with the truth," he wrote on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
Actress Zhang Ziyi also expressed disappointment online. Addressing the Malaysian government, she wrote: "You have hurt the entire world... and failed in your international responsibility."
Several Chinese tour operators already reported a fall in bookings to Malaysia, with some customers refusing to fly on MAS.
"In the two weeks after the incident, we have seen the number of clients from northern China dropping 50 per cent compared with the same period last year, including group and independent travellers," Mr Dun Jidong, a senior marketing manager at Ctrip.com, China's largest travel booking website, told South China Morning Post newspaper.
But others were more measured, saying that an incident like this could have happened to any country.
Said netizen "zhibingxungen": "This was simply an accident and MAS is already trying its best to deal with the situation. Anyone thinking of boycotting Malaysian goods is not thinking straight."