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

Marielle Descalsota   

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

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, one of the largest developers 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. Today, Forest City is a ghost town — one of several abandoned or near-abandoned housing projects in the Malaysian state of Johor, and part of Country Garden's portfolio of problems. The Chinese developer had over $190 billion in liabilities as of June, is seeing massive sales slumps, and contributes to China's ongoing real-estate crisis.

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.

I first visited Forest City for BI in May 2022, shortly after Malaysia opened international borders to quarantine-free travel.

Back then, rows of skyscrapers gave way to a nearly empty beach. I saw roads that didn't have a single car on them and just a handful of people in the development's mall. The nearby hotel looked abandoned, with dragonflies breeding in the discolored swimming pool.

Given Forest City's ongoing attempts to draw in tourists, I decided to visit again this year.

The Malaysian state of Johor received 16.6 million tourists last year. I took a 30-minute car ride across the border from Singapore, through Johor, and into the estate one weekend in early March.

The facilities that looked run down in 2022 were now in better shape. The pool was available for hotel guests to use.

Over the 48 hours I spent there, I saw several dozen people at the development's public attractions, which include the waterpark, artificial beach, and mall. Many of them were speaking Malay.

It was more people than I saw two years earlier — but it still felt like a ghost town.

One of the difficulties of reporting on Forest City is that official data on visitor and resident numbers is hard to come by. Country Garden, which has a 60% stake in the estate, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BI. The remaining 40% of the estate is owned by Sultan Ibrahim, who was crowned the king of Malaysia in January. Representatives for Sultan Ibrahim did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BI.

In September, Forest City told Reuters that some 55,000 people visit its showroom each month and said the two hotels on site are "always fully booked." I visited Forest City's golf resort — one of the two hotels in the estate — and found several dozen people dining and checking in there. But around the area where the showroom is located — a mile away from the beach and waterpark — there were only a handful of people, mostly families looking for a spot to have a picnic.

It was more people than I saw two years earlier — but it still felt like a ghost town.

Tourism numbers aren't the only ones hurting: The estate is also having trouble enticing and holding onto residents.

In 2022, one expert familiar with Johor's real estate market told me that several thousand people were living in Forest City. In August, Country Garden told Bloomberg there were 9,000 residents living there. In September, Country Garden told Reuters some 28,000 properties have been built so far. The developer did not state how many properties it plans to build.

Adilah Zain, a professor of tourism at MARA Technological University in Malaysia, told me there's at least one bright spot in Forest City's tourism outlook.

"Forest City is able to attract the weekend tourists," Adilah said, referring to tourists like Noble and Nemis.

In recent months, the development has held events, including golf tournaments and triathlons, to try to draw visitors. The weekend of my visit, 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.

I spoke to several people who traveled to Forest City for the triathlon. Shawn and Gary, Malaysians who appeared to be in their late 20s, told me they had traveled six hours to Forest City from their homes in Kuala Lumpur to take part in the race.

"I didn't know what to expect," Shawn said of Forest City. "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."

"I wouldn't come here. There's nothing here. It's quite dead," he added when I asked him if he would return.

One entrepreneur who owns a food business in Forest City said that for them, tourism doesn't translate into much profit.

"They come to the beach but don't spend a cent," the entrepreneur, who declined to be named for privacy reasons, told me.

"There's no point if it's crowded and the people don't spend," they said, adding that many visitors bring their own food rather than spend at eateries in the area.

One attraction that appeared to be pulling visitors — and has gotten them to spend money — is Forest City's golf resort, which has 298 rooms and cost almost $600 million to construct.

Adilah said local golfers and tourists have been buying packages to play golf. There's no official data on how many people have stayed at the hotel since it opened in September 2018, but I saw at least 50 guests — a mix of golfers and locals on family holidays — at the hotel's lobby and swimming pool.

Chandran, 28, a tourist from Singapore who had dined in one of the handful of eateries at the golf resort, 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 Forest City, though, Chandran had a different take.

"It's a bit creepy. Most of the houses are empty," he added.

March 25, 2024: This story has been updated.


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