The travel landscape in Malaysia has to be opened one way or another – and a tourism bubble is the kind of stepping stone the embattled industry needs right now.
Tourism industry players in the country say an initiative like that would provide a light at the end of the tunnel for operators that have struggled to stay afloat amid the pandemic.
"It should provide a lifeline to the industry as it can no longer sustain purely on government subsidies," says Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.
"While it is not expected to generate much in the beginning, it needs to be able to provide sufficient motivation for the industry to restart," he adds.
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Yap's comments came following the government's proposal of turning Langkawi into a pilot project for the tourism bubble, once the island has reached 80% vaccination rate for its population.
Travellers allowed to visit Langkawi will be limited to individuals who have completed their vaccination.
Not a foolproof plan
It is, however, important to note that tourism bubbles are not without its faults, says Yap.
"We have learnt from other similar initiatives such as the Phuket Sandbox (in Thailand), and it is crucial to understand that the initiative is not meant to be foolproof – it is not meant to be perfect.
"It will not guarantee zero Covid-19 cases (whether in or out), but what it is, instead, is an exit plan to live with Covid-19, having understood that it will not go away," he explains.
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The Phuket Sandbox programme, which was launched on July 1, allows foreign tourists who are fully vaccinated to visit the island. However, the programme has also contributed to a flare up of Covid-19 cases in Thailand.
The resort island reported 125 new Covid-19 cases during the week ending July 27, higher than the government-set threshold of 90 weekly cases.
Yap says countries should come to terms with coronavirus cases linked to the reopening of any sector of economy.
"We must be able to accept a threshold percentage of Covid-19 cases from it, and contingency measures prepared in advance to deal with it that would minimise local risks. This is the only way to move forward," he says.
Under watchful eyes
While Covid-19 cases are unavoidable at this point, travel operators can do their part to contain cases under a tourism bubble programme.
Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang says tourism bubble initiatives must be facilitated by tour operators to minimise any risk of a virus outbreak.
“To minimise infection, the travel plan must be a controlled itinerary through a tour operator who can ensure strict adherence to the SOP in transportation, and cruises.
“There must be proper enforcement and no unnecessary contact with the local community,” he says.
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According to Tan, the success of a travel bubble is a shared responsibility among operators at all points throughout a tourist's journey.
"Travel bubble is not something complex, but it's really just a shared responsibility. The authorities should quickly establish more travel bubbles nationwide to kickstart domestic travel," he says.
Malaysian Tourist Guides Council president Jimmy Leong agrees that travel operators would have a very important role to play to ensure the success of tourism bubbles.
"The mandatory use of a licensed tourist guide is needed to implement the tour as well as to monitor the movement of tourists, ensuring that they follow SOP," he says.
Leong adds that travellers should engage licensed tourist guides to ensure smoother passage during their holidays.T
ourist guides, he says, can help monitor the movement of tourists and ensure that they don't run into any trouble with authorities due to SOP non-compliance.
Pave the way
The pandemic has indeed taken a serious toll on the tourism industry, once one of the major income-generating industries for Malaysia.
Tourism operators hope the pilot programme in Langkawi will come to fruition despite the political instability in the country.
The success of the pilot programme will pave the way for other initiatives that will hopefully revive the battered travel sector again, they say.
"The tourism industry had been badly hit by the pandemic with many losing their income. We hope that this reopening can help operators regain both their confidence, and jobs again," says Leong.
MAH's Yap says the success of the pilot programme in Langkawi will serve as a barometer for the tourism landscape in the rest of the country.
"The project is an indicator of the sustainability of the tourism industry – that it will recover, and there is commitment from all parties. This will also drive talents back to the industry, having lost substantially (many workers) over the past one and a half year," he concludes.