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Malaysia’s $100 billion ghost town really wants to draw in tourists. It’s not working.

Forest City, a luxury development in Malaysia, is banking on tourism to shed its ghost town image.
Forest City claimed that several thousand tourists have visited the development.
But tourists and business owners alike said it’s not an attractive destination to spend or make money.
Wendy Noble lives 15 minutes away from Malaysia’s Forest City, across the border in Singapore. One Friday, after a tiring week at graduate school, all the 25-year-old wanted was to lounge by a beach.
A quick scroll through online photos of a pristine beach and luxurious golf resort inspired her and her roommate Ree Nemis to head to Forest City the following day.
Country Garden, the largest developer in China, spent $100 billion building Forest City. The developer promoted it as a “living paradise” meant to house 700,000 people in luxury high-rise condominiums and villas.
The reality turned out to be different. Instead, it’s now one of Southeast Asia’s most prominent ghost towns. Rows of skyscrapers make way to an empty beach. Roads that stretched for miles didn’t have a single car on them. The nearby hotel looked abandoned, with dragonflies breeding in the discolored swimming pool.
“My first impression was that it was quiet and only very few people were there,” Noble said.
But Forest City has shown it wants to shed its reputation as a ghost town, writing in a press release in March 2023 that it’s a place to experience “coastal resort life” and branding itself as a “popular short-haul tourist destination.” Forest City added in the press release that at least 15,000 people had visited its local waterpark from August to September 2022.
“The destination has been attracting not only local travelers but also many tourists coming from afar,” Syarul Izam, the vice president of Forest City, said in the press release.
But this hasn’t done much to transform its image.
A view of Forest City’s condominiums and villas. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
“The locals had a certain look when we said we’re going to Forest City,” Noble told BI, referring to the people they had met on the way to the development.
“It seemed like a nice place to live, so at the time, it didn’t make sense to me why no one lived there,” Nemis said, adding that she later noticed that the few facilities it had weren’t well-maintained as no one appeared to use them.
Forest City is using events to draw tourists in
In recent months, the development has held several events, including golf tournaments and triathlons, to draw visitors.
At first glance, the few thousand visitors to Forest City may not seem significant. Johor — the Malaysian state where the estate is located — received more than 16.6 million tourists last year, per data from Johor’s tourism agency.
The mall in Forest City on March 2024 and May 2022. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
Still, it points to significant growth in Forest City’s tourism sector, Adilah Zain, a professor of tourism at MARA Technological University in Malaysia, told Business Insider.
“Forest City is able to attract the weekend tourists,” Adilah said, referring to tourists like Noble and Nemis.
In 2022, one expert familiar with Johor’s real estate market told BI that only several thousand people were living in Forest City. In August, Country Garden told Bloomberg there were 9,000 residents living there. In comparison, Monaco, a city-state that’s four times smaller than Forest City, has 36,000 residents.
Country Garden, which has a 60% stake in the estate, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BI. The remaining 40% is owned by Sultan Ibrahim, who was crowned the king of Malaysia in January.
In 2019, right before the pandemic, there were more than 10 buses that ferried tourists to Forest City on property tourism packages every day, Adilah said. While the development continues to struggle to entice people to live in its tens of thousands of empty condominiums and villas, its tourism strategy may have a chance.
Forest City’s artificial beach in March 2024 and May 2022. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
When BI visited Forest City on a weekend in March, there were several dozen people at the development’s public attractions, including the waterpark, artificial beach, and mall. Most of them appaeared to be Malaysians, with many speaking Malay.
That weekend, Challenge Malaysia, a local triathlon, was being held at the beach. Photos posted online by the event’s organizer showed about a hundred people participating in the race.
It was noticeably busier than when BI first visited Forest City in May 2022.
Back then, only a handful of people were at the beach and the mall, and the waterpark wasn’t operational. Much of the vicinity was empty, with dark, towering buildings and no cars on the road. Some areas — including a wedding venue and a swimming pool — appeared to have been left to decay. Now, these places have been revamped and look better maintained, with the pool available for hotel guests to use.
BI spoke to several tourists who traveled to Forest City for the triathlon. Shawn and Gary, Malaysians who appeared to be in their late 20s, told BI they had traveled six hours to Forest City from their homes in Kuala Lumpur to take part in the triathlon. But the pair said they were less than impressed.
“I wouldn’t come here. There’s nothing here. It’s quiet dead,” Shawn said.
“I didn’t know what to expect. We’ve heard it’s quite run down, and it turned out it’s not that bad, but I’d rather go somewhere else if not for the event,” he added.
The waterpark in March 2024, and the nearby pool at Marina Hotel in March 2022. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
Tourists aren’t spending enough — except at the golf resort
Several people who own businesses in the development said the increase in tourists hasn’t translated into much profit.
“They come to the beach but don’t spend a cent,” one food entrepreneur, who declined to be named for privacy reasons, told BI. “There’s no point if it’s crowded and the people don’t spend,” they added, noting that many of the visitors bring their own food rather than patronizing the eateries in the area.
One attraction that appeared to be pulling repeat visitors — and has gotten them to spend money — is Forest City’s golf resort. Adilah noted that local golfers and tourists have continued to flock there to stay in one of its 298 rooms and buy packages to play on its sprawling golf course.
While there is no official data on how many people have stayed at the hotel since it opened in September 2018, BI observed at least 50 guests — a mix of golfers and locals on family holidays — at the hotel’s lobby and swimming pool.
The golf resort — known for its grand lobby displaying a model of Forest City — cost almost $600 million to construct.
Forest City Golf Resort’s lobby, with a miniature figure of the development. Marielle Descalsota/Business Insider
Chandran, 28, a tourist from Singapore who had dined in one of the golf resort’s half-a-dozen eateries, said he thought it looked modern and luxurious.
“Next time, I want to book the suite at the hotel. My friend said he booked a room after he saw an advertisement for it on Booking.com, and it’s great,” he said, adding that the nightly rates were much cheaper than in Singapore. A night at the hotel starts at around $90.
As for the rest of the estate, though, Chandran had a different take.
“It’s a bit creepy. Most of the houses are empty,” he added.
Read the original article on Business Insider

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