Can Malaysia's travel sector recover from the 'worst year in tourism'?


  • Malaysia Premium
  • Saturday, 30 Jan 2021

Experts are of the opinion that people would still very much like to travel, and will do so once it’s safe. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

The worst year on record in the history of tourism. That was how the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) described the travel industry in 2020.

International arrivals fell by 72% over the first 10 months of last year, with destinations welcoming 900 million fewer international tourists compared to the same period in 2019.

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly devastated a once thriving industry.

At the start of the year, there was some positive sentiment with news of vaccine procurements on the horizon. However, a recent spike in cases and the discovery of a more infectious strain of the virus have forced countries into another lockdown as people are once again urged to stay home.

Therein lies the big question for tourism workers and travellers alike: How will travel and tourism move forward into the new year?

UNWTO described 2020 as the worst year on record in the history of tourism.UNWTO described 2020 as the worst year on record in the history of tourism.

“There’s no denying that travel will be more ‘humble’ for a while longer, ” said global communications expert Muddassar Ahmed.

“Even with the vaccine, due to the logistics of the roll-out, Malaysians can expect a decreased flow of foreign visitors. However, the future for tourism is bright with the right steps, ” he said.

Muddassar, the founder of Britain-based Unitas Communications, has been advising the UNWTO on how to revive and restructure tourism without compromising public health needs.The UNTWO believes that it could take a year to get tourism back on track, though many industry experts believe it could be much longer.

Muddassar said countries should employ careful mitigation and proactive strategies to reinvigorate the travel and hospitality sector.

“That should begin, as the UNWTO had advised, with a focus on enabling greater local tourism within the country, transitioning slowly to regional tourism within Asia.

“These tourists will most likely have affordability and ease of transport at the front of their minds. Many have been hit financially, and many won’t want to take multiple public transport (as a way to save money) to reach their destination, ” he said.

Have safety, will travel

If anything, the coronavirus has changed customers’ travel preferences and decision-making.

“In the pandemic age, tourists will want safety, first and foremost. Countries which can prove that tourists can ‘evade’ Covid-19 will win out as top travel destinations.

“People will still want to go on holidays – but they will either travel further to safer destinations, or stick closer to home, ” Muddassar said.

Tourists will be looking at how countries handle the pandemic and consider infection rates, hygiene standards and safety protocols.

Experts are of the opinion that people would still very much like to travel, and will do so once it’s safe. — YAP CHEE HONG/The StarExperts are of the opinion that people would still very much like to travel, and will do so once it’s safe. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

Muddassar added that Covid-19 has also been a hard lesson on the fragility of the human-nature relationship.

“I think many travellers will use the pandemic as a warning in sustainability. They will reconsider their ecological footprints before deciding to travel, ” he said.

At the same time, people are also tired of being confined within the four walls of their homes.

A recent Expedia Group study, which surveyed 11,000 travellers across 11 countries, revealed that pandemic fatigue is setting in and there is pent-up demand for travel.

The study also pointed out that travellers want reassurances that travel providers and brands are following and enforcing pandemic protocols.

The onus is then on tourism operators to give peace of mind to tourists, said Muddassar.

“Stakeholders can ensure they have effective and stringent safety and hygiene protocols in place by educating their staff and implementing clear and concise policies and standards. They can also commit to sustainability and begin to advertise the ways they’re committed to eco-tourism.

“They can consider how tech can advance their business, whether via updating their website or going contactless. Tourists will be looking for any way to make their holidays modern, safer and easier, ” he said.

Digitalising ahead

Muddassar said countries should employ careful mitigation and proactive strategies to reinvigorate the travel industry. — HandoutMuddassar said countries should employ careful mitigation and proactive strategies to reinvigorate the travel industry. — HandoutThe importance of technology was also stressed by online travel agency Trip.com Group in its plan towards tourism recovery.

“Investment in digital infrastructure and the online migration of services across industries will define the recovery and be the legacy of the pandemic.

“Covid-19 was a catalyst for touchless technologies, which travellers now expect in order to minimise physical contact with people and surfaces, ” Jane Sun, the company’s CEO, said in a statement.

Trip.com Group highlighted technologies such as AI chatbot, RFID wristbands, smart tour guides and smart reservation analysis.

All the aforementioned systems enable seamless travel and better management of visitor flows, thus improving the traveller experience and making travel safer.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), in a report, also mentioned that technology will be vital to revive the beaten sector.

“Consumers are increasingly relying on technology; from using online and mobile platforms for recommendations and travel inspiration to using technologies during their travels to minimise physical interactions, ” WTTC said.

The report added that there’s an increased interest in virtual or augmented realities in trip planning and to aid businesses in connecting with a wider audience.

However, WTTC cautioned that this accelerated digitalisation is not without its downside.

“While digitisation and innovation offer tremendous opportunities for travel and tourism’s growth, which should be embraced, precautions are needed to make sure employees and local communities are not left behind, ” said WTTC.

Slowed momentum

Closer to home, Malaysia’s efforts in tourism recovery is staked on the National Tourism Policy 2020-2030.

The 10-year plan, announced by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, aims to ensure the continuity of the country’s tourism industry as well as reinstate Malaysia as the preferred tourism destination globally.

Another round of interstate travel ban has turned popular spots in the country, such as Concubine Lane in Ipoh, into ghost towns.  — RONNIE CHIN/The StarAnother round of interstate travel ban has turned popular spots in the country, such as Concubine Lane in Ipoh, into ghost towns. — RONNIE CHIN/The StarThe National Tourism Policy will be implemented through six main strategic thrusts: Administration transformation, inclusive tourism investment zones, consolidating tourism digitalisation, enhance demand sophistication, reinforce commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism, upskilling human capital in all tourism sub-sectors.

When the policy was revealed in December last year, it was lauded by local travel players. In the same month, airports in Malaysia also recorded a boost in domestic passenger movements by three-fold, thanks to the relaxation of domestic travel restrictions.

That momentum, however, has been disrupted by the recent reintroduction of the movement control order.

During this period, all forms of tourism activities are not allowed to operate. There is also a ban on interstate travel.

Travel stakeholders have urged the government to come up with an enhanced and targeted rescue plan for tour and travel agents in light of the restrictions.

“Tourism businesses are currently in extreme distress due to the very fragile and uncertain business environment which is expected to continue late into 2021, ” said Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Dauk Tan Kok Liang.

Tan said it is no longer “business as usual” under the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We urge the various government agencies to make immediate policy changes to ease the financial burden of the hardest hit industry in Malaysia, ” he said.

Meanwhile, hotels are expecting to lose all revenue streams with more lay-offs in the near future.

“With little or no revenue, businesses will not be able to retain its employees or pay salaries, and will have no option but to let go of them, ” said Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.

With these recent developments, is Malaysia still poised for tourism recovery?

Muddassar said the MCO is sure to raise more concerns on when, if ever, travel will come back. He is convinced that the MCO period can be used by stakeholders to reimagine tourism strategies.

“Through investing in mass testing strategies, local communities, small businesses, sustainable alternatives and appropriate technologies, Malaysia can lead a confident recovery mission which will build a resilient tourism sector lasting far beyond 2021, ” he said.

Muddassar added that all parties would need to join hands to revitalise travel again.

“Governments should engage with private sector innovators and entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions and build a more sustainable tourism sector.

“Tourists play a crucial role, but the private and public sector should use this moment to unite in the face of common goals, ” he concluded.

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