Time to establish a ‘Tourism Data Bank’

While the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be uneven across the economic sectors, risk of the tourism economy to be among one of the last to recover is extremely high.

A CRUCIAL lesson from Covid-19 is the need for multistakeholder collaboration in the travel and tourism industry.

This crisis has forced the industry’s business organisations, public institutions and others to cooperate on the destination, national and international level.

Coordination with non-traditional entities like health agencies has become vital. All these requires evidence based information.

The Covid-19 pandemic unveiled the global importance of the travel and tourism industry in relation to economics and interconnectedness with other industries. Unprecedented measures taken to contain the virus spread such as lockdown, movemAent control orders, border restrictions and social distancing affected every business activities related to this industry – from small tour operators to multinational hotel chains and major airlines.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia set an ambitious target to attract 30 million visitors in 2020 (26.1 million in 2019) with close to RM100bil in tourism receipts through the Visit Malaysia 2020 tourism campaign. But the pandemic health crisis wrecked severely the 2020 target.

Hungarian tourists in Malaysia in 2019.Hungarian tourists in Malaysia in 2019.

By end of the first half of 2020, the number of tourist arrivals plunged by 68.2% from the previous year same period to 4.25 million. Tourist expenditure fell sharply to RM12.5bil, or 69.8% on annual basis. Per capita expenditure dropped by 5.3% to RM2,956.10 on annual basis in the first half of 2020.

Unlike past crisis where the tourism economy showed resilience, this time around with the combined economic and health, this is the first industry to be deeply impacted by the pandemic as a result of the unprecedented measures. The road to recovery will be much longer.

While the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic will be uneven across the economic sectors, risk of the tourism economy to be among one of the last to recover is extremely high. It is despite signs of recovery emerging supported by domestic travellers. Long-distance travellers are likely to remain at the back seat until full confidence emerges which could probably happen in 2022.

For the tourism economy to reach pre-pandemic levels, it will need to lift the hope and confidence of the travelers. And much will depend on the deployment and effectiveness of the vaccines.

Management of the pandemic, travel restrictions, travel behaviour, consumer confidence, survival and readiness of businesses throughout the tourism ecosystem to meet demand are some of the other factors that will influence the industry’s recovery momentum.

On that note, the continued risk for this industry to face the “stop-start” cycles will be there for sometime. Longer the “start-stop” cycle remains, the impact will be more severe and it will be tougher to rebuild the tourism economy as it will still weigh heavier on travellers confidence and business survival prospects. Before the pandemic, the tourism economy contributed 15.9% to GDP.

With the recovery of the tourism economy more likely to be a laggard in comparison to many other industries, the Covid-19 pandemic has posed the question to the travel and tourism industry on whether there is a need to ‘continue operating the usual way or change the business operation mode’.

And the answer is, ‘of course to adopt to changes’. This pandemic has started a virtuous cycle that tackles one of the tourism’s headline issues that is ‘overcrowding’.

There is a rise in public awareness on personal health safety and physical distancing. This means the prospect of being on a “shoulder to shoulder” environment may not be palatable again. Before the pandemic, millions of tourists would seek out the ‘must-sees’ in the most-popular and ‘must-go’ destinations at the peak of the ‘must-visit’ months. All this came to a halt following the restrictive measures imposed to contain the virus spread.

Looking into the future of this industry, it is important to acknowledge right from the start it will be different compared to what it was in 2019. Hence, there is a need for policymakers to design strong and coordinated actions to mitigate the impacts and support the recovery.

For instance, this crisis has led to the growing trend on communications technology (ICT) readiness and capacity to attract a new breed of travelers. Digital technology will be necessary to provide more efficient and touchless solutions at airports and other public spaces.

Automation, backed by touchless fingerprint and document scanning, face recognition and voice controls, will grow in use in a post-pandemic world, further increasing the need for ICT readiness and prudent governance of privacy information.

Hence, industry players must work together and rethink all aspects, from marketing to managing visitor flows to spreading benefits to local communities to leveraging digitalisation for sustainability efforts. Failure to do so will reduce the resiliency of the sector and leave it exposed to greater headwinds in the future.

Policies must be designed to take opportunities of new technologies, implement green recovery strategies, drive new business models, explore new niches/markets, open up new destinations, and a better balance on environmental, social and economic impacts.

There is a need to integrate tourism policy approaches; have policy clarity and take steps to limit uncertainty; strengthen multi-lateral co-operation; develop collaborative systems across borders to safety resume travel; restore traveller and business confidence; stimulate demand; and accelerate tourism recovery.

Importantly, this crisis has led to the demand for more information and data-sharing that can lay the foundation for better access on business sustainability and competitivenes. Also it will help design policies that are more meaningful and effective — lead to efficiency, clarity and consistency.

Evidence-based information will place the industry on more solid footing and be better prepared for a future crisis. For instance, while waiting for the opening of international borders, focus on domestic tourism – local and nature-based activities. It would lead to reduced overcrowding in urban areas and help spread more economic benefits to local and rural communities created by travel and tourism.Besides, shorter-distance trips will reduce emissions. It will also reduce the dependence on international tourists. But such growing interest into local and natured-focused trips would put additional pressure on the already pressured environment.

Hence, by gathering information on outdoor activities in a comprehensive and coordinated manner, it paves way to leverage into better stewardship of the very natural assets that generate tourism demand.

More detail information made available and utilised in a coordinated manner across federal, state, local council and market players will ease the process to restart the domestic tourism industry.

It is timely to establish a ‘Tourism Data Bank’ that will have a comprehensive database and information related to tourism and tourism-related industries at industry, local council, state and national levels. The information must be coordinated and centralised at the national level and shared across all levels including the market players.

By having a centralised and well-coordinated ‘tourism data bank’, it will help spread more economic benefit created by this industry to the overall economy directly and indirectly. It will assist both the policymaker and businesses to find ways and means to address the ongoing issues triggered by this pandemic such as preventing more job losses in this industry, create temporary jobs within tourism, upskilling and reskilling in accordance to the new demands by the industry, and avoid talents that have lost their jobs to switch to other unreleased jobs such as being full-time grab drivers, etc.

The crisis, recovery and reset plans have all put in place a once in a lifetime opportunity to move towards a more sustainable and resilient tourism development model. It is timely to leverage on this opportunity to reboot the tourism economy on a stronger, fairer and more sustainable footing. A well coordinated and comprehensive ‘tourism data bank’ is seen to be timely as evidence based action will become increasingly crucial. It is important to seize this moment where collective action can reach a critical mass to enable change though the reality is that more often the prospect to achieve real change appears to be an impossible task to tackle.

Anthony Dass is group chief economist/head of AmBank Research, and a member of the Economic Action Council Secretariat and adjunct professor at UNE, Australia. The views expressed here are his own.

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