IT’S been more than a month since Johor sprung back to life following the reopening of Malaysia’s international borders.
After two years of lull due to the Covid-19 pandemic, local businesses such as those operating in downtown Johor Baru are thankful to be on the road to recovery.
Yam cake and chwee kuih seller Sim Tee Seng said his business had improved by at least 30% after the country began the transition to endemic phase on April 1.
“The relaxing of the Covid-19 SOP and reopening of the borders last month gradually brought many visitors back to Johor Baru, especially Singaporeans and Malaysians working there.
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“The public holidays and long weekends in April and May also saw domestic tourists from Melaka, Kuala Lumpur and Pahang visiting our city.
“Johor Baru seems to have snapped back to life as it is much more vibrant now compared to the past two years,” he told StarMetro.Sim, who has been making and selling the traditional snacks for the past 38 years, noticed that some of his customers were more willing to spend this time round.
“There were some customers who came to Johor Baru for the weekend where they tried my snacks on Friday and came back for more before the end of their trip.
“Some customers from Kuala Lumpur also ordered takeaways of 30 to 50 pieces of my snacks to bring back for their friends and families,” he added.
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Stanley Yeow, a pillow maker in Jalan Trus, Johor Baru, also has more reasons to smile these days as his business has improved by about 40%.
“Most of our ready-made pillows, bolsters and mattresses have sold out and we are now working on custom-made products.
“My parents and I are filling the orders and we currently have orders stacked up for at least two weeks. Our customers comprise new and regulars, including a fair number of locals and Singaporeans,” he said.
Restaurateur Edward Ng thinks that apart from the lifting of travel restrictions, the relaxation of Covid-19 standard operating procedure also played a part in bringing the crowd back to the downtown area.
“It is much more lively now, unlike the first two years of the pandemic where many businesses were forced to close shop and their employees had to look for jobs elsewhere,” he said.
He pointed out that businesses in this area depended mainly on visitors from Singapore “as we are less than 2km from the Sultan Iskandar Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex”.
“I tried to keep my staff on payroll for about a year when the pandemic first hit, thinking we could just weather it out; we certainly did not expect the border closure to stretch up to more than two years.
“It is a relief that all that is behind us now and we are back in business, I hope we can continue to do better from here,” said Ng, who runs two restaurants along Jalan Trus.
He said the recent long weekend holidays observed by both Malaysia and Singapore provided a timely boost as it brought more foot traffic into the downtown area.
“The long queues at various food and beverage outlets in the area, including ours, reminded us of the pre-pandemic good days.
“It is heartwarming to see many familiar faces come back to my eateries and some even messaged us on social media asking whether we are still open as they want to eat at our outlets.
“The only issue now is the lack of workers because I previously had to let many of my staff go during the pandemic and many have found work elsewhere or are heading to Singapore to earn more money.
“Thankfully my customers were understanding and patient enough to wait up to an hour in line as they told us they missed dining in Johor Baru after being away for so long,” Ng said, adding that his parents and siblings also came to help out at the outlet.
Meanwhile, vendors at the Larkin Sentral bus terminal such as Shahrilnizam Mohamed, who sells kuih bahulu (traditional egg pastry), are also relishing the increase in business and foot traffic.
The proprietor of Mahanoum Bahulu Malaya, who has been selling the pastry for 26 years, hoped that things would continue to improve in the second half of the year.
“My business was adversely affected; it was down by at least 90% the past two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the several movement control orders that were implemented.
“But it has improved 60% since the nation began moving towards the endemic phase and the country’s borders reopened on April 1,” he said.
Shahrilnizam described the lifting of travel restrictions between Malaysia and Singapore as timely, noting that Ramadan and Hari Raya Aidilfitri proved to be a lucrative time for him.
“This year’s fasting month was the busiest time for us as we received many orders, including from our Singaporean customers,” he said.
A convenience store sales assistant, B. Prasad said the shop had extended its operating hours to cater to the increase in customers.
“Prior to the reopening of the border, the outlet operated from 9am to 5pm daily but now we are open until 10pm as there are more commuters at the terminal now,” he said.
“Although the bus and taxi services between Johor Baru and Singapore have resumed, the number of visitors from the republic is still low compared to before the pandemic.
“However, things are better now than before when the border between the two countries was closed from March 18, 2020,” he added.
Prasad hopes the number of visitors from Singapore and express bus services at the terminal will increase in the next few months.
Meanwhile, money changer Mohamad Thameem Mohamed Farook was among those beaming due to the improvement in business.
The Zaihar Pengurup Wang Sdn Bhd proprietor made the decision to cease operating in 2020 and 2021, which he described as “the worst period in my 20 years running the business at Larkin where earnings plunged by at least 90%.
“It was not economical to open the business when there were no customers around.
“I reopened my shop on April 1 this year and the majority of my customers were Singaporeans who came to Johor Baru to shop for Hari Raya Aidilfitri,” he said.
Mohamad Thameem expects the number of customers to gradually increase when locals working in Singapore start to commute daily to the island republic by buses and taxis.
He feels that the stronger Singapore dollar will also attract Malaysians to seek employment there.Besides his outlet, two quick- service restaurants at the terminal are also set to reopen by the end of the month, having closed down temporarily in 2020 and 2021.
“It is a good sign for the bus terminal as business is improving,” Mohamad Thameem added.
There are about 200 tenants at Larkin Sentral, including traders at the market located adjacent to the terminal building.
Among the businesses there are outlets selling apparel, footwear, food, beverages, confectionery, mobile phones and sundries, aside from hair salons.
Express bus companies operating at the terminal provide bus services from Johor Baru to cities and towns in the peninsula as well as to Singapore and Hat Yai in Thailand.
There are also six stage bus operators here plying Johor Baru and other districts within Johor.