Can Malaysians really be tourists in their own country?


When the sun sets in Batu Ferringhi, the sidewalks of Penang’s main beach destination come alive with a cacophony of activity at the popular night market. Vendors set up stalls along Jalan Batu Ferringhi and sell a variety of things.

The items on sale range from home decoration items to fresh fruits and fake designer handbags, to T-shirts featuring Armenian Street’s iconic murals.

The bazaar has been a perennial favourite among tourists, but chances are you won’t find Elaine Tan browsing around. The Penangite only goes there when visiting friends want to experience the nightlife at Batu Ferringhi.

“It is such a touristy thing to do. Most Penangites I know don’t really go to the night market,” Tan says, adding that she is not a fan of the long drive up the winding road to the popular tourist spot from her home in the city centre.

The Batu Ferringhi night market has always injected much excitement to the nightlife at Penang's famous beach destination. - FilepicThe Batu Ferringhi night market has always injected much excitement to the nightlife at Penang's famous beach destination. - Filepic

But the homemaker’s reservations also has something to do with the double standards in customer service that she experienced in the past from certain vendors.

According to Tan, some traders she dealt with tend to be friendlier and more accommodating towards foreign tourists.

“The moment I open my mouth and speak Hokkien (the main dialect spoken among local Chinese folks in Penang), I can’t help but notice that some of the sellers suddenly don’t seem so interested to serve me any more,” she shares.

Those bad experiences left a sour taste in Tan’s mouth and discouraged her from being a tourist in her own backyard.

But Tan’s aforementioned encounters took place before the pandemic struck and international borders were closed. Covid-19 has crippled the tourism sector as international tourists are barred from entering the country for more than one-and-a-half years now.

Fortunately, the Malaysian travel landscape is beginning to see some glimmer of hope with the allowance of domestic tourism activities and the initiation of the tourism bubble programme in Langkawi. Another piece of good news is that interstate travel is now allowed.

A local tourist taking a selfie at Langkawi SkyBridge during a recent visit under the tourism bubble initiative. - LIM BENG TATT/The StarA local tourist taking a selfie at Langkawi SkyBridge during a recent visit under the tourism bubble initiative. - LIM BENG TATT/The Star

But the travel landscape would be a different one by the time countries worldwide slowly emerge from lockdowns. Post-pandemic tourism recovery, according to experts, will be mainly driven by domestic travellers in the near future.

This begs the question: How can stakeholders do better to cater and attract locals to holiday in their own country?

Time to rebrand

If anything, Tan’s conundrum illustrates an implicit trend in the past where tourism stakeholders tend to favour international visitors over domestic tourists.

But the aforementioned scenario needs to be seen from an economic lens on the part of the tourism operators too, says Asean Tourism Research Association president Professor Dr Neethiahnanthan Ari Ragavan.

Prof Neethiahnanthan says it is time to rebrand domestic tourism to encourage locals to travel. — Taylor’s UniversityProf Neethiahnanthan says it is time to rebrand domestic tourism to encourage locals to travel. — Taylor’s University“We can’t entirely blame industry players for focusing more on international visitors due to the higher spending power. Although the domestic tourist segment looks attractive as a market potential, their spending pattern is not convincing.

“In 2019, the country recorded RM103.2bil income from 239.1 million domestic tourists as compared to RM80.1bil income from only 26.1 million international visitors. This shows that 10% of the international tourist market contributes bigger than 90% of the domestic market,” he explains.

What this means is that each domestic tourist spends approximately RM330 (per holiday) on average, whereas each international tourist spends approximately RM3,000.

International tourists at the Thean Hou temple in Kuala Lumpur last year before Covid-19 brought tourism to a standstill in Malaysia. - FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.International tourists at the Thean Hou temple in Kuala Lumpur last year before Covid-19 brought tourism to a standstill in Malaysia. - FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.

Prof Neethiahnanthan, who is also the executive dean at Taylor’s University’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Leisure Management, says encouraging spending from locals would require a rebranding of domestic tourism.

“The government’s move to focus on domestic tourism in 2021 is a good strategy as international borders are closed and expected to remain closed for (a while longer). What is important is our government should rebrand domestic tourism,” he says.

Prof Neethiahnanthan says travel operators need to motivate Malaysians to spend more while holidaying in their own country.

“Unfortunately, our locals do not spend as much locally compared to their international trips, or as much as incoming international tourists. We need our local tourists to stay at the hotels, hire travel agencies, tour coaches and guides to support the industry.

Travel operators need to find ways to get local Malaysians to stay at hotels, hire travel agencies, tour coaches and guides to support the industry. - JANE RAITravel operators need to find ways to get local Malaysians to stay at hotels, hire travel agencies, tour coaches and guides to support the industry. - JANE RAI“The introduction of the travel subsidy and tax rebates by the government in 2020 is the right step forward to spurring domestic spending and it did encourage domestic travelling activities,” Prof Neethiahnanthan shares.

The onus is also on travel operators to effectively market domestic destinations to local visitors.

“There are many unknown destinations in Malaysia which are considered ‘hidden jewels’. Travel operators can package these destinations to the domestic market rather than focusing on commercialised destination alone.

“This approach is in line with the recent travel behaviours where travellers usually seek ‘Instagram-able’ moments. Travel operators and hotels should capitalise on this growing trend and galvanise local travellers to local attractions,” says Prof Neethiahnanthan.

Rebuilding confidence

Marketing and promoting destinations aside, the recovery of Malaysia’s post-pandemic domestic tourism is staked upon rebuilding confidence. Travel operators would need to boost confidence among domestic tourists to get them to travel amid the pandemic.

“The priority for future travel is health and safety as the first policy among tourists. This changing travel behaviour is expected given the havoc this virus has caused to our lives.

“If we are merely looking at it from a pandemic perspective, then safety is of the highest priority (of travel motivation). If the industry can convey a message to the public that travelling is safe, the demand for tourism will increase. “Travellers’ confidence and trust is important to revive tourism activities,” says Prof Neethiahnanthan.

Now is a good time for Malaysians to discover their own city or state. - ART CHEN/The Star.Now is a good time for Malaysians to discover their own city or state. - ART CHEN/The Star.

Good health and safety measures are just the tip of post-pandemic travel trends. The coronavirus has invariably changed the travel behaviour of many people, and operators need to respond accordingly.

Sustainability for one, will be an important factor for travellers moving forward in a post-pandemic environment.

“Theoretically, there will be more and more quality tourism as opposed to mass tourism, with tourist being more sustainably conscious. The authorities and industry should take this opportunity to divert tourists to new destinations to avoid overcrowding.

“This will also ensure sustainable tourism practice. It is yet to be seen if such new travel behaviours and motivation take precedent,” the professor adds.

What’s for certain is that tourism operators certainly have their work cut out for them in rebuilding the sector.

As for local tourists like Tan, she just hopes she can experience top-notch hospitality when she takes a vacation in her own backyard.

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