The spread of the coronavirus around the world has taken the joy out of travelling. Although we gladly put all our holiday plans on hold, there is really no clear indication of when we can safely pack our bags and go on our next adventure.
Still, those with wanderlust are taking it all in their stride, using the extended period at home to either reminisce past holidays or just go on virtual holidays to prepare for future trips.
Some are even planning to go on a “Cuti-Cuti Malaysia” binge once the Covid-19 crisis subsides, as a way to help the local travel industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Avid traveller Julian Gan is one such person.
“It’s important because our local economy took a hit when our country started observing the movement control order (MCO, which began on March 18). A lot of small businesses have been affected, especially in the travel industry, and we need to do our part to help, ” Gan explains.
In fact, the ample time at home has given him the opportunity to plan a more thorough holiday itinerary, as well as put in place better budgeting.
“It’s something to keep your mind busy while at home. But I also think that people have always planned ahead when it comes to holidays, ” he says.
Gan, who works as a marketing executive, is looking forward to the day when he can be out and about again.
“I am experiencing a bit of cabin fever right now. When you have the freedom to go out, you just want to stay home. But now that you can’t get out, you just want to.
“I definitely want to go somewhere after being at home for over a month. I would love to go to Penang with my family, ” he says.
Meanwhile, engineer Nur Akmar Mohd Arif is looking forward to a holiday in Melaka with her family.
“It will be a food trip for me. At the same time, I also want to help the hawkers and restaurant owners by giving them business, ” she says.
Like Gan, Nur Akmar thinks that Malaysians can help to sustain small local businesses by keeping their travel in the near future to within the country.
#TravelLater: Travel for country's recovery
On social media, the hashtags #TravelLater, #TravelTomorrow, #WhenWeTravelAgain and other similar iterations have made their rounds since early March. The idea is to stay at home during this crucial period – save money, energy and time – and only travel once it is safe to do so.
Tourism Malaysia has been tagging #TravelLater on its social media posts and is encouraging travellers to stay home for the time being.
Tourism Malaysia director general Datuk Musa Yusof says health and safety should be the topmost priority for the travel community now.
“While we are proponents of travelling, it does not fit with the current climate as we are battling the Covid-19 virus across the globe, ” he shares.
At the same time, Musa believes the #TravelLater movement is a good step towards economic recovery, especially for the tourism industry.
“As we are all aware, the effects of Covid-19 are felt beyond the health sector. Many businesses are now bearing the brunt of the adverse effects, especially those in our tourism community.
“When our local businesses are hurt, so do the people, ” he explains.
“Once the air clears, we would strongly urge our fellow Malaysians to prioritise travelling domestically as a way to help our local businesses and boost the domestic economy. It may take months for the tourism industry to recover from the effects of Covid-19 and we need all the help we can get to help rebuild it, ” he continues.
Musa says Malaysians can help revive the economy by just spending their money in the country.
“When you are spending on local businesses, you are helping build these businesses and this will improve our economy as a whole.”
The domestic travel industry contributed RM60.4bil to the Malaysian economy in 2018. The local tourism sector also employed over 3.5 million people that year.
Musa cautions that if Malaysians do not render assistance to the domestic travel market, more people are likely to lose their jobs as businesses become unsustainable.
“Stimulating the economy by spending within the country can have multiplied effects. Once we start spending on local businesses and stimulate their growth, businesses are able to expand and work on improving their services which will create more interest in the products, not only from Malaysians but also international travellers.
“With the increase in demand for businesses, the tourism industry will flourish and contribute more to Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the longer run, ” Musa explains.
Tourism hit hard by Covid-19
The worldwide travel restriction – as well as general apprehension among the public to travel – in light of Covid-19, has certainly put a strain on tourism operators since January.
As of March, the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) reveals that 2,041 employees in the industry had been laid off due to economic pressures and the extended MCO.
A survey by MAH shows average occupancy levels dropping to 25% and less in the coming months, with no foreseeable improvement for at least another six months.
To put things in perspective, hotels generally do not expect to make any profit with occupancy lower than 40%, depending on their business model.
MAH chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng says domestic tourism will play a major role in the industry’s recovery.
“Local travellers will be an important element in filling the void and this will translate into driving the country’s economy.
“Malaysians should take this opportunity to explore Malaysia, the hidden gems that we have missed over the years when we had the luxury of travelling overseas prior to this, ” he says.
Yap adds that he does not expect international travel to be the same as before.
“Apart from managing expectations and confidence, economic pressures will set limitations on travellers in the future, ” he explains, adding that this will shift locals’ attention to destinations within the country.
For homegrown travel platform LokaLocal, which works together with both cosmopolitan and rural communities to offer localised experiences, it hasn’t been an easy situation for its many hosts and guides.
“Whether they are from cities or rural communities, our local experts have all been affected, and each are handling the situation differently.
“I would say that while some are more vulnerable to the economic and financial impacts, they are finding their own ways to cope or do different things to manage, ” says Rachael Lum, LokaLocal’s content and marketing lead.
She adds that even as the situation improves, inbound travel would not instantly bounce back.
“That is the time when local travel players will need the most help to get back on their feet. It starts at home. It is up to Malaysians to be the initial catalyst of improvement for tourism in Malaysia, ” Lum implores.
Boost travellers' confidence with better services
While support from Malaysians is good, tourism stakeholders need to do their part to boost confidence in the local travel landscape, says Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang.
“Travel operators need to be prepared to change what they have been doing in the past. For example, an agency that has been focusing on selling airline tickets only, now needs to sell domestic or inbound travel packages too, ” he offers.
According to Tan, tourism companies should use this time to invest in training and upskilling its staff. It is vital, too, to engage with tourism boards to understand products better and to come up with better marketing strategies post-coronavirus.
Apart from that, airlines, hotels, product owners, convention centres, transport owners and other operators must work hand in hand.
“Tourism operators can form a consortium to work on developing tour packages, as well as marketing and sales strategies. These in return will reduce the cost of operation and tour packages, making them more attractive and competitive for travellers, ” he says.
More importantly, Tan says operators should be flexible when it comes to the matter of providing refunds and other conditions.
“Service providers should play a crucial role to build confidence by easing the terms and conditions to encourage forward bookings.
“In addition, they must be prepared with products and services to lure travellers back such as back-up services and health precautionary measures, ” he says.
MAH’s Yap agrees that reinstating trust in the travel scene is important, at least in the near future.
“I think it is inevitable that the travel community will come back bigger and stronger, but at the moment we are faced with the challenge of building confidence, ” he says.
To address this, Yap says hotels are planning ahead to ensure all efforts to clean and sanitise hotel premises are being documented according to Health Ministry guidelines and industry best practices.
“At industry level, we at MAH are also planning the ‘Clean & Safe Malaysia’ campaign where hotels that fulfil a set of requirements will be certified as Clean & Safe, endorsed by the relevant authorities, ” he explains.
Meanwhile, Matta is encouraging its members to promote domestic destinations that are free from Covid-19. The association is also urging members to put in place medical standard operating procedures on tours they are offering.
That being said, Tan expects a slow recovery and hopes the industry will stabilise by June next year.
“We need to be united in rebuilding tourism in the country and all Malaysians should consider supporting domestic travel for a start, ” he concludes.