Ken Döscher had been looking forward to his first trip to Malaysia. The business student from Germany had always been captivated by the country’s pristine nature, beautiful beaches and exciting cosmopolitan vibe.
But when Döscher, 28, finally made his anticipated sojourn to Malaysia in early March this year, he never expected to stay way past his intended holiday period.
Like many travellers, Döscher is stranded abroad due to the worldwide travel bans and restrictions, which were implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus. In Malaysia, the movement control order (MCO) was implemented on March 18.
“Before coming to Malaysia, I saw that there were only a few hundred cases here, so I was not worried at all, ” says Döscher.
However, the number of reported coronavirus cases significantly spiked, which subsequently led to Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announcing the MCO on the evening of March 16.
“That was the first time I realised that I was going to be affected by the Covid-19 crisis, ” Döscher recalls.
Waiting it out
During the MCO period, Malaysian citizens and Permanent Residents are not allowed to travel abroad. The same kind of travel ban, however, is not imposed on international visitors who wish to return to their home country.
Although there are restrictions placed on the entry of all international visitors into the country, tourists and foreign nationals are allowed to leave.
Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad (MAHB), in a statement posted online, assures that all airports in the country continue to stay open during the MCO.
“Airports are categorised as an essential service, so all our airports will continue to operate, ” MAHB states, assuring that there are no restrictions on both international and domestic flight operations.
“Any decision to cancel flights will be at the discretion of the airline companies. Passengers are advised to check with the respective airline companies on your flight schedules.”
Döscher, who is currently in Kuala Lumpur, will wait out the coronavirus situation here – or at least until the end of the MCO period.
“My plan is to stay here until the MCO is finished. There is no other country around South-East Asia which is open for tourists at the moment, so I can’t travel anywhere else.
“I like it here in Malaysia, because of the friendly people. Everyone speaks really good English, the food is also very good and the prices are not as high like in Singapore, for example.
Döscher, who was in Melaka before the MCO began, is glad that he managed to move to KL.
“There are more hotels and supermarkets here. I am happy to be in KL, ” he shares. In fact, Döscher has been documenting his holiday experience during the MCO through vlogs (video logs) posted on his YouTube channel, Ken Abroad.
Some of the videos show him heading out to buy groceries and other essentials at deserted shopping malls in the city. There are also posts which depict him sampling local delicacies, bought through take-away services, which he then tries alone in his room.
According to Döscher, who is a seasoned traveller, his trip to Malaysia during the health crisis has been an unprecedented experience abroad.
“The city looks like a ghost town. I have never seen a huge city like KL so empty. And in front of every supermarket, there are security guards to check your temperature. At some places, I had to write down my contact details every time I entered. That was a bit strange in the beginning, but I have gotten used to it already.
“I am still having a good time here; I try to make the best out of it. I can’t change the situation and it’s the same right now everywhere around the world, so I am not complaining about things I cannot change, ” he shares.
Too expensive to fly
Couple Steve Greig, 29, and Ivana Wibowo, 31, who were also holidaying in Malaysia when the MCO was implemented, have decided to do the same thing as Döscher – stay on and wait for the Covid-19 crisis in the country to settle down.
The Canadian couple has been travelling full time since January last year. They only started noticing how serious the Covid-19 situation was getting when countries began to close their borders.
“Now, some concerns are that we don’t know what our next move is. Flight ticket prices have doubled, everything is closed and not accessible, ” Greig and Wibowo offer in a joint email reply.
The couple has decided to stay put in Malaysia as it is too expensive to return to their home country in Canada. They are currently staying with a friend in KL.
“The average price to go back to Canada is between CAD$1,200 and CAD$2,000 (RM3,739 and RM6,232), compared to the normal CAD$600 and CAD$800 (RM1,870 and RM2,493).
“We can only get back home with multiple flight connections. There is a risk of being stranded somewhere else if connecting flights are cancelled.
“Besides, we feel safe here in Malaysia with the MCO taking place, ” they say in response to the decision to stay put.
Like Döscher, Greig and Wibowo have been posting videos of their holiday experience during the MCO period on their YouTube channel JetLag Warriors.
“We prefer to stay inside and be safe. Even though we miss travelling a lot, the MCO here is not too bad.
“Luckily we have a grocery store on the ground level of where we are. We are staying with our Malaysian friend so we have access to a kitchen which is awesome. He also happens to be a boxing coach, so we train with him every day.
“Our biggest challenge is staying connected as we find the data service quite slow in Malaysia, ” says the couple.
According to Greig and Wibowo, the coronavirus crisis has also greatly affected the budget for their long-term holiday.
“Our income comes from the travel and tourism industry. We have a YouTube channel that is all about travelling, and Ivana works remotely for a wellness company that runs retreats all over the world.
“So our finances are badly affected by the coronavirus. Luckily we have some savings we have put aside for emergency situations like this, ” they say.
The duo has been keeping their travel budget in check by cooking their own meals at home and avoiding ordering food from outside.
Finances aside, Greig and Wibowo are currently trying to get their visa extended so that they may plan their next move.
“We found very limited information about visa extension during or after MCO – on the process, what to bring, and even office hours, ” says the couple.
A quick check reveals that there’s a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section specifically on the MCO on the Immigration Department’s official website. However, some questions and responses are only available in Bahasa Malaysia.
The Immigration Department states that international visitors with expired or expiring passes during the MCO are allowed to return to their home countries.
Greig and Wibowo say the government should provide more information for stranded travellers.
“It would help us deal with the situation and plan our next move. And maybe (they would provide an) even longer grace period for expired visas since the immigration office would be busy and flights are still hard to get, ” they say.
Welcome to stay
When the MCO was announced, local travel operators only had a small window to prepare.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang had then called the MCO “bold and decisive”, but criticised the lack of clarification for tourists caught in transition.
“Guests cannot be expected to proceed to the airport and catch the next flight home as easily as commuters taking a train home after work.
“Also, mechanisms must be in place to prevent or reduce unnecessary hardships to the rakyat as well as remaining tourists still holidaying in Malaysia, ” he says.
Since then, Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri has clarified that tourists are welcomed to continue their stay in the country throughout the MCO, but they must follow the rules and restrictions placed by the authorities.
“Tourists are better off staying put where they are because it is safer that way. Once you go out elsewhere, you never know what the risks are out there, ” Nancy says, when contacted.
“You might be in contact with the virus or you might even spread it around. The best thing to do is just to stay in your room, ” she says, adding that sightseeing can only continue once it is safe to do so.
In addition to the cancellation of the Visit Malaysia 2020 (VM2020) campaign, all tourism facilities under the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry will be closed until the end of the month.
These include several popular tourist attractions in the Klang Valley, namely the National Art Gallery, National Library and Muzium Negara.
Döscher hopes that he will be able to visit some popular tourist attractions in the country once it is safe to do so. As a matter of fact, that is one of the reasons he is staying on.
“I would really love to explore and get to know KL and potentially more of the country when all of this is finished. But of course, that is not a priority for me at the moment. It is more important that everyone here stays healthy, ” he explains.
As for Greig and Wibowo, there’s no other place they would rather be during the Covid-19 crisis.
“We feel lucky that we are stranded here in KL and not somewhere else. We got everything we need here... groceries, food and even beer!”