How Malaysian tour operators are keeping tourists safe amid Covid-19 fear

A Malaysia Airports employee wearing a protective face mask at the KL International Airport. — SAMSUL SAD/Bloomberg

The Visit Malaysia 2020 (VM2020) campaign started with a bang, literally, when fireworks and drone formations welcomed the launch of the tourism campaign at the historic Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, at the start of the year. But that jubilant tone is now dampened by the current Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, which has affected the tourism industry globally.

In Malaysia, local tour operators are facing over 3,000 tour group cancellations. And according to the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), room cancellations have picked up since the Chinese New Year holidays, when the Chinese government issued a ban on its citizens from booking overseas tours, flights and hotels.

“We have earlier received multiple cancellations of free independent travellers at hotels around the country, and since the ban, we have been contacted by online travel agents, local and international travel agents to allow the cancellation of group bookings from now till the end of February, ” said MAH president Kamaruddin Baharin.

VM2020 targets 30 million tourist arrivals and RM100bil tourist receipts this year, and Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi is standing by those figures. However, the ministry will revise promotional plans to focus on markets besides China.

Travellers from China consistently make the top 10 list of international tourist arrivals to Malaysia. In the first half of last year, the country recorded 1,558,782 tourist arrivals from China; the Chinese tourist market accounts for 11% of Malaysia’s total tourist market share.

   Visitors to the popular Thean Hou temple in KL wearing face masks as the coronavirus outbreak heightens. —  FAIHAN GHANI/The StarVisitors to the popular Thean Hou temple in KL wearing face masks as the coronavirus outbreak heightens. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

Due to the Covid-19 crisis, MAH estimated losses suffered by hotels to reach “hundreds of thousands” of ringgit, especially at destinations which are highly dependent on the China tourist market.

“Hotels at Kota Kinabalu (Sabah) and Langkawi (Kedah) in particular, are anticipating a drop in occupancy from 30% to 60% immediately, while other destinations like Melaka, Ipoh (Perak), Port Dickson (Negri Sembilan) and Penang are looking at an immediate impact from 10% to 50% but this is just the beginning, ” said MAH chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.

Taking swift action to safeguard travellers

In an effort to dispel any negative perception on travel to Malaysia, the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry has established a Tourism Recovery Action Committee to monitor current developments.

The committee is responsible for providing advice and clarifications to all tourists including steps they need to take to safeguard their personal health as advised by the Health Ministry, to prevent them from getting infected with the virus while in the country.

According to Tourism Malaysia, the country is prepared to handle the virus outbreak. It highlights that Malaysia is ranked third in Asia for the Most Prepared Country for a pandemic, after Thailand and South Korea in the Global Health Security Index 2019. “Malaysia strives to continue strengthening our commitment in ensuring the safety of our people and tourists visiting our country and we would like to give assurance that Malaysia is safe to travel, ” Tourism Malaysia said.

Various industry stakeholders have also stepped up to provide assurance that it is safe for travellers to make travel plans to Malaysia.

   Yap said local hotels are well-equipped to handle the coronavirus crisis situation. — FilepicYap said local hotels are well-equipped to handle the coronavirus crisis situation. — FilepicYap said hotels are well-equipped to handle the issue. He outlined how hotels are fully prepared to sanitise facilities for both guests and employees, schedule cleaning of all contact and touch points as well as isolation procedures for any suspected cases.

“Emergency and extraordinary preparedness are part and parcel of hotels’ standard operating procedures, and this is something that homes cannot provide, ” he said, adding that staying in an accommodation converted from private homes, such as Airbnb, is riskier.

Meanwhile, Airbnb said it is closely monitoring official news and guidance in order to support the safety and well-being of its hosts and guests in China and around the world.

“We strongly urge our community to take necessary precautions to protect yourself when travelling or hosting. As the situation evolves, we will be continuously evaluating and updating this policy, in line with official guidance, ” the company said in a statement.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang assured that all licensed tour operators and relevant authorities in the country are taking the necessary steps and precautions to safeguard the well-being of travellers.

He outlined how authorities at all exit and entry points are filtering out tourists with symptoms of Covid-19.

“Those allowed to enter our country are then met by tourist guides if they travel in tour groups. Our tourist guides will be on the lookout for any tourist that shows the slightest symptoms for isolation, or to be sent for immediate medical examination, ” he explained.

Tourist wearing face mask during a visit to Batu Caves. -  FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.Tourist wearing face mask during a visit to Batu Caves. - FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.

As for tour buses, Tan said they are being cleaned regularly. Any rubbish, including used tissues, will be cleared immediately.

“Bus drivers are to ensure door and grip handles are constantly wiped clean, and they could wear gloves when not driving as they also handle luggage, ” he said.

Malaysia Airlines said it increased its alert level where the Emergency Operations Committee (EOC) stepped in to ensure safety, at the onset of the virus outbreak. It immediately provided masks to passengers as well as gloves for staff handling food items and contaminated utensils. The airline also modified the CPR technique where mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is no longer done by its cabin crew.

“To reduce the risk of onboard disease transmission, all our aircraft are equipped with medical communicable disease kit to cater to ill passengers. In line with China government’s directive, the airline conducts temperature screening prior to boarding for all passengers travelling into and out of China, ” Malaysia Airlines added, in a statement. AirAsia, in a statement, said aircraft disinfection task is performed in accordance with Airbus Aircraft Maintenance manual. It takes up to two hours to complete this task at every night stop.

Damage control on tourism numbers

Matta has held a series of meetings with the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry, Health Ministry and Tourism Malaysia to come up with strategies to tackle the sudden and significant drop in travel to Malaysia.

The recovery of the country’s tourism, according to Matta, is vital as the industry employs more than 3.5 million people (23.5% of the nation’s total employment).

   Tan assured that all licensed  tour operators in the country are taking the necessary precautions to safeguard the well-being of travellers. — FilepicTan assured that all licensed tour operators in the country are taking the necessary precautions to safeguard the well-being of travellers. — Filepic“We have proposed forward-looking recovery measures which include an increase of

promotional and marketing initiatives for domestic and inbound tourism, easing the criteria and requirements for matching grants under Galakan Melancong Malaysia (GAMELAN Malaysia) and a review on the Tourism Tax rate to encourage more tourists to choose Malaysia as a preferred holiday destination, ” said Matta’s Tan.

Other proposed measures include increasing marketing efforts to correct any mistaken impression that Malaysia is not safe; encouraging cross border tourism; and easing visa requirements, especially for Indian tourists, to cover the shortfall of tourists from China.

MAH’s Yap said all travel stakeholders are considering immediate contingency plans to boost tourism from other markets.

Statistics from Tourism Malaysia revealed that the other top international tourist arrivals in 2018 were from Singapore (10,615,986), Indonesia (3,277,689), Thailand (1,914,692), Brunei (1,382,031), South Korea (616,783), India (600,311), the Philippines (396,062), Japan (394,540) and Taiwan (383,922).

“We are working together to strategise attractive packages as alternatives for those planning or have planned to travel to China. This will not only promote domestic tourism but could also cushion the negative impact from the current situation, ” Yap concluded.

Hygiene tips to reduce risk of infection

The Covid-19 crisis has certainly put a damper on many people’s holiday plans. But if you’re still going forward with a trip to highly populated tourist spots, there are some basic precautionary measures – as outlined by the World Health Organisation – to reduce the risk of infection.

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Maintain a distance (at least 1m) between yourself and others, especially those who are coughing, sneezing or having a fever.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Seek medical care if you have a fever, cough or breathing difficulties.
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked foods.
  • Practise general hygiene measures when visiting live animal markets, wet markets or animal product markets.

* This story has been updated to include the official name of the novel coronavirus - Covid-19

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