The tourism conundrum

The good old days: File photo of tourists in George Town’s Armenian Street. — The Star

TOURISM Malaysia has posted the latest figures on foreign tourist arrivals on its website. Last year, the total number was 4,332,722, a drop of 83.4% compared with 26,100,784 in 2019. It will take a long time for Malaysia to receive an average of more than two million foreign tourists monthly, as we did in 2019.

I am certain we will not even reach two million for the whole of this year because actual arrivals for nine months last year, from April to December, was only 99,267. If this rate were to be repeated this year, we may get a few hundred thousand foreign tourists – mainly from Brunei, Singapore and Thailand – who can enter Malaysia by road.

In 2019, total inbound tourism expenditure amounted to RM89.4bil while domestic tourism was higher at RM103.2bil. This included RM15.48bil spent on vehicle fuel, which was the second highest expenditure after shopping for domestic visitors. Such visitors comprised day-trippers and tourists staying overnight away from home.

Before we can count on the foreign market, we must first work towards the success of domestic tourism. This will only be realised when all interstate travel restrictions are lifted, and the SOP is adhered to ensure movement controls are not re-imposed. Failure to comply with the SOP will only result in lockdowns again. And as long as we cannot make a success out of domestic tourism, our borders are unlikely to be reopened for international tourism. Besides, if the Covid-19 infection rate remains high, few foreigners would visit Malaysia.

Many tour operators have sunk after little or no income for the past 12 months. Those that remain afloat might go under as they have piled up more debt than those that chose to suspend operations or closed altogether. It would be cruel to ignore their desperate cries for help.

When borders are eventually opened, outbound tour operators would fare much better than inbound. There is a pent-up demand from those who can still afford to travel or desire to perform the Haj or Umrah. In 2019, over 300,000 Malaysian pilgrims went to Saudi Arabia. For inbound tour operators targeting long-haul markets, the numbers will only trickle in slowly as the devastated economies of European countries and the United States will take years to recover.

Inbound tour operators that cannot survive on just the domestic market probably will not be around in 2023. Last July, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announ-ced that tourism will only recover in 2024, as predicted by the Economic Action Council.

While the start of vaccinations has brought much hope, they are not silver bullets that can end the pandemic immediately. It can take more than a year for enough people to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. Until then, it is a delicate balancing act whether to impose movement controls or lift travel restrictions. If the economy remains only partially open, more businesses will collapse. But without movement restrictions, there will be a rise in Covid-19 infections, leading to yet another lockdown. A conundrum indeed.

Kuala Lumpur

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