The travel industry has been forced to take a vacation from selling vacations because of SARS outbreak. LAM LI reports on how it has transformed work routines and the lives of those in the business.
FOR the last one month, tour bus driver S. Rajasegeran has had to come to terms with an unorthodox routine in his daily life.
He gets into a bus, starts it up and lets the engine warm up for some five minutes. Then he switches it off, locks up the bus and goes home.
In the office of tour operations manager K.P. Lee at Sungai Wang Plaza, what used to be a constant orchestra of phone calls has been replaced by pin-drop silence.
In a competitor's office nearby, a sole customer is rewarded with an excess of service as over a dozen staff with nothing to do shower her with attention worthy of a VIP.
On May Day, driver cum tour guide Thomas Sinappam went to work as usual only to find that his boss had given everyone the day off.
“It was history! In my 15 years of working, the office has always been opened 365 days a year. Not a single day passed without business,” he said.
Thousands of employees in the travel industry have had their work routine transformed following the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which has caused over 6,000 probable cases in 26 countries with over 400 deaths worldwide.
The stigma associated with travel, which began after the World Health Organisation issued travel warning against several countries badly hit by SARS in April, has created a crisis of an unprecedented scale.
Industry players say the last big drop in tourist arrivals occurred during the 1998 haze episode, but that temporary setback was a far cry from SARS.
Based on government statistics, tourism has for two consecutive years ranked as the second highest foreign exchange earner for the country, after manufacturing. Last year's tourist arrivals touched 13.1 million and brought in RM26.41bil, with close to RM9bil contributed by shopping.
The sector has grown so big with huge investments in infrastructure and supplementary businesses waiting in queue for tourist dollars. But the SARS equation has currently left it all dressed up with no place to go.
The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agencies (Matta) has over 1,600 organisations as members who employ between 10 and hundreds of workers each, depending on the size of operations.
The Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) has over 300 members, ranging from non-rated to five-star international resorts, and the employees involved in upkeeping over 60,000 rooms and attending to food and beverages outlets would work out to tens of thousands.
On the front line, there are over 600 tour guides registered with Malaysian Tour Guides Council (MTGC) and hundreds of tour bus drivers.
Since shopping is one main activity of tourists, the retail sector too has not been spared.
Rows of tour coaches are lying idle at parking bays opposite Jalan Imbi's Pasar Rakyat. The engines are warmed every morning but the buses have nowhere to go.
“The tour agency I work for used to put on standby five 40-seater buses to pick up tourists from the Malaysian Tourism Centre daily, but now we have switched to using nine-seat vans. On certain days, even these cannot be filled up,” said Thomas.
“Tour bus drivers with no assignment have to go on unpaid leave. The management has told drivers to look for temporary jobs elsewhere to sustain themselves and their families because there is no guarantee when the situation will improve.”
For MTGC president Jimmy Leong, who has not handled any tour group for nearly a month, the break from work was not by choice.
“Our members' income is based solely on the number of assignments secured from tour agencies. On average, we used to earn between RM3,000 and RM5,000.
“Most of us can hang in there for between three and six months without any assignment but beyond that we will be in critical condition. We too have the usual commitments – paying bills, house and car loans, feeding family and attending to children's needs.”
Employers have gathered under respective associations to present their requests for short-term relief packages from the government in order to save businesses and, ultimately, jobs as has been done in other countries in the region.
Singapore and Hong Kong had, on April 17 and April 22, announced short-term relief measures amounting to US$130mil (RM494mil) and US$1.5bil (RM5.7bil) respectively to rescue ailing businesses, including tourism, catering, entertainment, tourist coaches and small and medium enterprises.
The measures range from property tax cuts, loans, and licence fee waivers to reduced foreign worker levies.
Here, industry players are hoping to see interest-free soft loans, such as loans up to RM250,000 suggested by Matta, to overcome cash flow problem to service debts, pay salaries and protect jobs.
MAH, which has been fighting for lower utility charges even before the SARS outbreak, is making its demand more urgent because a record low occupancy rate (some members hitting as low as 10%) triggered by the disease has placed hoteliers under more pressure.
Apart from individual requests from respective associations, a form of solidarity has also taken place within the tourism industry as tour operators, hoteliers, airlines and relevant government agencies grouped under a crisis management committee to fight back.
“Previously, we (industrial players) worked in isolation within our own sector but now we have formed a team to tackle emergency situations,” said Matta secretary-general Datuk Mohd Khalid Harun.
“Although the team was formed to draw up contingency plans to deal with the economic fall-out from SARS, in the future, with this solidarity we will be prepared to face crises of other nature by activating the team.”
Hopefully, the growing interest in domestic tourism will sustain and boost the earnings of the travel industry, which amounts to about 15% of the foreign exchange brought in by overseas groups.