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01/11/2021
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Tourist industry: beyond recognition?

By Lee San

Over the past 20 months, our tourism minister has been working very hard to revive the tourist industry, and the results are clear for everyone to see.

Although this is what she is supposed to do being the tourism minister, as little progress has been made in the country’s ongoing battle against the coronavirus, there has been little that she can do.

Fortunately, the pioneering Langkawi travel bubble programhas been a resounding success as she has wished. I’m sure more international travel bubble programs will be launched as we step into the month of November. Of course, travel industry operators are more than happy to welcome such initiatives even though they might still have a hard time adapting to the changing environment.

The minister said lately that the tourist industry made up 15.9% of the country’s GDP in 2019. The thing is, she fell short of mentioning the number of people working in the industry. I did some research myself and managed to get a rough figure. If we were to include the family members too, at least 2.5 million Malaysians rely on the industry for a living!

As such, every decision made by the minister not only will impact the country’s economy but will also feed large numbers of travel industry operators like us who have been starving for more than 20 months by now. As a matter of fact, we will still need to suffer at least another six months without incomes, and I am pretty sure the minister is well aware of our predicament. That said, after this disastrous ordeal, how many are still willing to go into the industry again?

Undeniably, since the interstate travel ban was lifted on October 11, indeed we have seen new opportunities in domestic travel activities. Although this may not directly benefit local travel agencies or tour guides, at least it offers the much needed breathing space for some in the industry, especially transport service providers, hotels, homestays and F&B operators etc., and this will lift the overall tourist economy. At least these people will have their jobs and incomes!

As for me, I am all set to kickstart our national park tour package on November 3, followed by Kuala Kurau + Gopeng, Miri + Mulu, etc. Notably, the young boss cum driver Chow, from whom we are leasing the tour coaches, told me: You only need to pay the basic rental and I will handle the rest; we’ll bear the cost so long as the travel fraternity gets to start work and the industry gradually recovers. To do this, Chow has to default on 20 months of car loan and has a family of three to feed.

So, YB, you are not fighting the war alone; travel industry operators nationwide have made remarkable sacrifices for the industry’s recovery, too.

YB, you are really very lucky, but there are bound to be some huge problems coming your way, such as: severe shortage of experienced personnel, and the fact that many travel agencies are cash-strapped to resume their businesses!

Up till this point, I would like to ask YB whether the government has done anything to help those who have lost their livelihoods over the past 20 months, even as it claims that the travel industry is of paramount importance to the country’s economy. Have you paved a road for local travel operators to brave through the pandemic in order to keep them in the industry while they are taking a momentary respite? And has it ever crossed your mind that the industry’s recovery requires the immediate return of experienced personnel to their jobs? Moreover, travel agencies need to have operating capital in order to resume their businesses.

Travel industry operators in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong are lucky to have been given special attention by their governments during the trying times. As for Malaysia, even the banks are avoiding the travel industry. Do you know that many of us are struggling to stay alive through the pandemic all on our own? Imagine how many are still willing to do something for the nation, given the industry’s cold treatment from the government? Not many, I guess.

Anyway, to bring the travel industry back to pre-pandemic levels will necessitate careful planning and systematic implementation. It must never be rushed through! In the meantime, it is critically important for travel frontliners to strictly adhere to the SOPs in a bid to stop the spread of the virus. Do bear in mind that the travel industry has been beaten beyond recognition and will not be able to withstand another major impact anytime soon.

Fortunately the outbound sector has shown a glimmer of hope. Currently there are some 41 countries ready to welcome Malaysian tourists by exempting the mandatory quarantine ruling. However, the moment you return to the country, you will still be put on 7-day mandatory home quarantine. Such “unfair treatment” will not boost the industry’s development.

Nonetheless, I have confidence that the 7-day home quarantine period will very soon be shortened to three days. So, our travel industry operators must ready themselves as soon as possible for a surge in both inbound and outbound tourists.

Over the past 20 months, the global travel industry has remained in a state of hibernation, with many simply winding up their businesses. In Japan, more than 300 travel agencies have already closed down, while the largest UK travel coach operator has suffered a similar fate, not to mention countless hotels, airline companies, restaurants which have shuttered, and drivers, guides and pilots who have switched to other jobs in order to survive. It is almost impossible to get an instant quotation from these service providers now.

Everything has to be started anew. Almost all the “old” itineraries are no longer applicable to the post-pandemic environment. Airline schedules and travel plans have to be redesigned. Among the new factors that must be taken into consideration are: shorter durations, fewer stops, smaller groups… all these need to be rearranged, and it is not as easy as you think. We need to adapt ourselves to a completely different operating environment.

Having said that, I believe we in the travel industry have the same travel DNA in our blood. We will continue to devote ourselves to the industry and work together tirelessly to bring about its full recovery.

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)

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