A worker harvesting Musang King durians in Raub Durian Orchard in Raub district, Pahang. Durians from estates in Raub are sought after for their creaminess and bittersweet flavour that stems from the area's soil and terrain.
KUALA LUMPUR • China's love of durian is rocketing, and Malaysia wants a piece of it.
The value of China's fresh imports of durian has climbed an average of 26 per cent a year over the past decade, reaching US$1.1 billion (S$1.48 billion) last year, according to United Nations data.
Thailand dominates that market, but Malaysian politicians are counting on durian diplomacy to expand access beyond frozen fruit pulp.
At a Malaysian durian festival in Nanning, in southern China, earlier this month, about 165,000 people lined up to taste thawed, whole-fruit samples of the country's premium Musang King variety.
"Some of them said, now in China, there are two things that people will queue up for - the iPhone X, and Malaysian durians," Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry Ahmad Shabery Cheek said last week at a durian festival in Pahang, which drew durian devotees from as far away as central China.
Customers enjoying a taste of Musang King durians (above), at the Raub Durian Orchard. Across Malaysia, orchards are recording a spike in the number of Chinese tourists eager to savour a food that is routinely banned from hotels, airports and on public transportation, for its polarising smell.
"We really hope that soon the whole fruit will be available in China," said Ms Qiang Churan, 35, who travelled from Xi'an in Shaanxi province to attend the two-day event in Bentong, Pahang, the country's top durian-growing state. "There are a lot of Thai durians in China, but the taste is totally different from the Malaysian durian, like Musang King."
A durian usually has about five pieces, or carpels, of yellow flesh. In China, a single piece may cost about 100 yuan (S$20), said Ms Qiang, who planned to take home about 5,000 yuan worth of durians.
She represents the kind of tourist Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai wants to lure to Bentong. The government plans to develop the rural town into a durian tourism centre.
As some Chinese durian lovers search for the best all-you-can-eat buffets, others are hunting for orchards to cut out the middle man.
Owning a durian farm in Malaysia is not only a profitable investment, but also a sign of prestige, said Mr Jayson Tee, an agriculture land agent in Pahang. Buyers from China are motivated by the prospect of inviting friends and family to their farms for durian feasts.
"The price of durians keeps going up, so this is their investment opportunity," Mr Tee said. "And of course, they love durians."
Depending on location and accessibility, a farm with six-year-old trees goes for about RM400,000 (S$131,000) per hectare, while those with mature, 10-to-12-year-old trees command at least double that, said real estate agent Eric Lau.
Still, the business can be frustrating because "durians are the most challenging" fruit to grow, according to Mr Teo Chor Boo, an agronomist with Malaysia-based Applied Agricultural Resources, which advises farmers on crop management.
The fruit development process is fragile, and trees are susceptible to disease, and sensitive to changes in soil moisture and nutrients, he said.
CURBING TOURISTS Mr Eddie Yong, who keeps about 400 mostly Musang King trees, is finding he is almost too good at growing the fruit. His orchard in Raub, Pahang, about 460km north of Singapore, is having to limit the number of tourists to 150 a day, after an increase in visitors from Hong Kong and China.
Durians from estates in Raub are highly sought after for their creaminess and bittersweet flavour that stems from the area's soil and terrain, said Mr Yong, 57, who began the orchard more than 30 years ago.
"People travel all the way from Singapore just to taste the durian," he said. He recently turned down a RM5 million offer from a Chinese investor for his 4ha farm, he said.
"They offered me a good a price, but I don't want to sell," he said. "This is my life, my passion."
Source: The Straits Times