Can domestic tourists help Malaysia's travel sector recover amid Covid-19?

More Malaysians are exploring their respective states amid the Covid-19 pandemic. — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected the tourism sector in the country. If the sight of deserted hotel lobbies and airports aren’t testament enough, one need only look at official tourism data.

Last week, Tourism Malaysia reported that tourist arrivals to the country dropped by 83.4% in 2020 with the country only welcoming about four million tourists.

It was a marked decrease from the 26,100,784 tourist arrivals recorded in 2019.

“The massive drop in international tourist arrivals is attributed to the closure of Malaysian borders since March 18 last year due to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, ” said Tourism Malaysia in a statement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom – at least not in the eyes of Tourism Malaysia director-general Zulkifly Md Said.

The Covid-19 pandemic, according to him, has highlighted the importance of domestic tourism.

“Domestic tourism has always been the saviour for the industry whenever the country was in a crisis. International tourism would be halted during a crisis but domestic tourism would continue and actually provide revenue for the country, ” he said during the launch of the international travel trade show ITB Berlin recently.

According to Zulkifly, Malaysia has a wealth of attractions that locals can discover, or rediscover. It’s also prime time to holiday in your own country as tourism operators have introduced attractive deals to attract more people.

Zulkifly has observed hotels and airlines offering deals and packages to domestic tourists.

“I’m sure there will be more great packages for our locals moving forward, ” he said.

Zulkifly’s views on the importance of domestic tourism has been echoed by other stakeholders too.

Malaysian Association of Tour & Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang reportedly said that domestic tourism will be the main contributor of the country’s tourism industry this year.

Tourists in your own home

Tourism activities are currently allowed in areas under the conditional and recovery movement control order phases.

Among the activities allowed include public and tourist attractions such as zoos, cultural heritage sites, museums, farms, aquariums, edutainment centres, recreational parks, theme parks, extreme and nature park outlets.

More recently, the National Security Council announced that interstate travel is allowed between areas under the recovery MCO but strictly for tourism activities only.

And with the inter-district ban lifted, many Malaysians have since taken the relaxation on tourism activities to explore their own backyard.

It was reported recently that many Penangites have visited the Penang Hill which has just reopened to the public. Those interviewed by The Star said they were in dire need of some outdoor fun and fresh air.

Bank clerk Syikin Tajul, who lives in Penang, welcomed the freedom to travel again.

“Since the MCO, we have not been going around and it feels like ages since we got some fresh air. When we heard that they started the train services again, we had to come up, ” she said.

Syikin added that she observed strict health measures to stay safe while travelling.

“As long as we always wear our masks and sanitise regularly, it should not be a problem, ” she said.

The volatility of the MCO, however, changed how Malaysians plan their holidays.

Digital travel booking platform Agoda reported that Malaysian travellers are among the top three in the region to go on spontaneous and last-minute trips during these uncertain times.

Meanwhile, Airbnb general manager (India, South-East Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan) Amanpreet Bajaj said Malaysians are adapting to the various MCO phases.

“When they can, they are choosing to take quick, short getaways with their families. Safe and clean travel is their utmost priority, ” he said in a statement.

New way forward

A year on since the pandemic brought tourism to a halt, stakeholders have accelerated digital adoption to remain competitive.

Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri said going virtual would be key to reigniting the sector.

“Now, more than ever, digitalisation is revolutionising the tourism industry and global travel experiences, and with today’s advanced technology, smart collaborations and partnerships are the way forward, ” she said during the ITB Berlin launch.

According to Nancy, tourism businesses are learning to leverage on digital platforms.

In fact, intensifying digitalisation of the tourism sector was one of the main strategies of the National Tourism Policy 2020-2030.

Local airlines as well as airports have accelerated digital adoption amid the pandemic too.

Physical travel documents may soon be a thing of the past for passengers at the KL International Airport.

The airport expects to introduce facial recognition technology in the first half of this year. This initiative will replace boarding passes for faster and safer passenger authentication.

AirAsia Group chief executive officer Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, in a statement, said the airline has put in place some digital initiatives too.

These innovative technologies would make travel safer and more seamless post-Covid-19.

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