Faster vaccine rollout can save Malaysia's tourism sector, say travel operators

Tourism stakeholders said vaccination is key to saving the industry in the long run. — IZZRAFIQ ALIAS/The Star

The nationwide lockdown has forced tourism and hospitality players to once again face the grim reality of operating in an uncertain travel landscape amid the pandemic.

Many stakeholders in the country believe that stricter measures are timely to curb the alarming spike of Covid-19 cases in the country. While the lockdown is necessary, many believe that the industry will no longer be sustainable without some form of assistance.

Fortunately, some relief came when Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced the Pemerkasa Plus economic stimulus package on Monday night.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang welcomes many of the initiatives outlined in the package.

Pemerkasa Plus, according to Tan, would “help tourism players, in particular travel agents, stay afloat during this time of crisis”.

Of the initiatives announced, Tan is most elated by the Bus and Taxi Hire Purchase Rehabilitation Scheme. The scheme allows eligible bus and taxi operators to get a loan moratorium of up to 12 months and extend the loan period of up to 36 months.

“We are thankful that the government has taken the bold decision to intervene on behalf of bus owners as the previous moratoriums did not apply to leasing companies, ” he said.

Matta estimates that its members alone own more than 9,000 vehicles classified as “bas persiaran”, or tour buses.

According to Tan, many tour buses were purchased from credit and leasing companies, and a 40- seater tour bus costs between RM490,000 and RM580,000.

“The debt, which is impossible to service given these trying times, has the potential of crippling the tourism ecosystem if not dealt with swiftly and decisively, ” he explained.

Other tourism-related initiatives under Pemerkasa Plus include extension of electricity bill discounts, one-off aid of RM500 to tourist guides and RM1.5bil for the Wage Subsidy Programme.

Enough for now

Since the start of the pandemic, the tourism industry and related economic activities in the country, have suffered losses of over RM100bil.

The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH), meanwhile, reported that the hospitality sector recorded a loss of over RM6.53bil last year.

“The tourism and hotel industry is in dire straits, there’s no doubt about it, we need all the help we can get, ” said MAH president Datuk N. Subramaniam.

While Pemerkasa Plus came at the right time, Subramaniam said the aid announced would not be sufficient in the long run.

“With the situation being uncertain, a long term wage subsidy system must be in place, alongside a higher (yet) reasonable utilities discount especially electricity, ” Subramaniam said.

“While what was offered in Pemerkasa Plus is little to the industry, we will have to make do with what we have and what is given, ” he added.

Subramanian said the priority now is to “look after our employees”.

It’s a goal that’s reiterated by Matta’s Tan when he asked for more assistance to keep travel agents afloat. “We would like to appeal to the government to approve further assistance to travel agencies with a grant of RM10,000 each to help them to cover fixed costs and overhead costs.

“Travel agencies in particular have been one of the hardest hit businesses many of which are trying desperately to stay afloat by turning to alternative businesses which do little to improve the situation for the company and its more than 47,000 direct employees, ” Tan explained.

Make vaccination a priority

While an economic stimulus package provided some relief, local tourism players said vaccination would be key to save the industry in the long run.

Tan said Matta has written to Khairy Jamaluddin, coordinating minister for the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme, to “fast track the vaccination programme rollout for workers in the tourism industry”.

“This move is critical if we are to reinforce the nation’s reputation as one of the foremost tourism destinations in South-East Asia.

As can be seen by several other countries, the success of their vaccination programmes have resulted in these countries being able to open their borders to international travel, ” he said.

MAH too has appealed for the vaccination of workers employed in the hotel sector.

“MAH has been in communication with the government since early this year on vaccination of hoteliers, and recently even sourced sponsored venues to make this happen as soon as possible, ” Subramaniam said.

According to him, hotels are also ready to serve as quarantine and treatment centres for low risk or asymptomatic Covid-19 patients to lessen the burden on public healthcare.

“At this point, we want the government to focus its efforts on fighting Covid-19 more than anything, so that we can all progressively move back into our normal lives soon, ” he concluded.

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