Local tourism operators struggling with post-pandemic recovery

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

PETALING JAYA, Nov 14 — The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly influenced the global tourism industry.

Here in Malaysia, the income of local business owners was severely impacted by lockdowns including the movement control order (MCO) and the closing of borders to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Since reopening of the economic sectors, the recovery process has been slow, at best.

Sara Shera, from Perhentian Rambo, a family-run travel service that provides lodgings and tour packages on Pulau Perhentian, Terengganu, struggled greatly during the first MCO.

“Due to the travel limitations, not only did business suffer due to a lack of tourists, but it was also tough for us to get by on the islands as we couldn’t go to the mainland to get supplies.

“Islanders, like my husband, occasionally went spearfishing or fishing to provide us with enough replenishments,” she revealed.

Businesses within cities like Kuala Lumpur had similar experiences.

The director of Sales, Groups, Meetings and Events at Doubletree by Hilton Kuala Lumpur who did not want to be named, said that: “It definitely impacts the income and profit of the organisation with government travel restrictions and people being scared to meet people face to face. Not much demand is created in the hospitality industry.”

Government assistance to the tourism industry

At the time, the government put in place several measures, including the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK), the Prihatin Special Grant (GKP) for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), and a Wage Subsidy Programme (PSU) to mitigate the impact that the pandemic had on the economy.

Wayne Tarman, the director of sales and research at Borneo Adventure Sdn Bhd, expressed the differences such programmes had for their business.

“The most significant government assistance was the federal government’s wage subsidy programme. This helped us to offset some staff costs.

“The Sarawak government’s Sia Sitok campaign was also helpful in kickstarting domestic tourism in the state and helped operators generate some revenue before the borders opened,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Doubletree by Hilton Kuala Lumpur director said that while they appreciate the government’s initiatives for helping the company stay afloat, there are problems that still require attention.

“At the end of the day, companies need to increase their income in order to be able to sustain business and pay employees their salaries,” the director said.

The speed of recovery to pre-pandemic stage

As chairman of the National Recovery Council (MPN), former prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin had encouraged the government to reopen the borders as early as October 2021.

But the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and lockdowns were only eased and officially lifted in April 2022 when the country transitioned to an endemic phase.

The consensus across those in the industry echoes their plight of not being able to recover to their pre-pandemic state for many reasons.

“If the borders had opened in January instead of April, we would be back to pre-Covid revenue levels. Recovery of B2B (business-to-business) sales from overseas agents has been slower.

“This is around 40 per cent of pre-Covid levels. Overall, our total sales are around 50 per cent of pre-Covid levels. We expect recovery to pre-Covid sales levels in 2024,” Wayne said.

Some cited the lack of foreign tourists to be among the main cause of the industry’s slow recovery.

“Compared to before the pandemic, business has been slow. Partly because we don’t see any tourists from China because of lockdowns in their country.

“We mostly get a lot of locals and some Mat Salleh, mostly Europeans from France and Germany. Plus on the islands, we also have to account for the off-season when the islands are basically closed for the monsoon season,” said Sara from Perhentian Rambo.

Additionally, local businesses also agree that Covid-19 SOPs and lockdowns in other countries are also impacting tourism here in Malaysia.

“The problem now is flight shortage, other countries’ travel restrictions and so on that are affecting tourism,“ said the director of Sales, Groups, Meetings and Events at Doubletree by Hilton Kuala Lumpur.

The effects of labour shortages on the industry

However, since international visitors have started to return, industry players, particularly hotel operators, have experienced a labour shortage, particularly in foreign manpower.

When asked what they hope the government should do in the short term to resolve the problem, industry players unanimously agreed that the government should work on providing incentives to encourage people to work in the tourist sector.

“I can say it’s difficult to attract workers because the pay isn’t very competitive. Why would people want to do back-breaking work when they can earn more doing things like Grab? I think the government should try to make working in the tourism industry more appealing.” said Sara Sheera from Perhentian Rambo.

Can the government provide prompt support to restart the tourism industry?

The MPN has encouraged the government to speed up and simplify the application procedure for foreign labour.

It has been determined that the country’s recovery effort and the pandemic-affected businesses have slowed down due to labour shortages.

Additionally, the MPN has consistently asked the government to accelerate efforts to revive the tourism sector, develop programmes and offer aid to the industry which is a significant contributor to Malaysia’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“The time for greater assistance was in 2020 and 2021 when the tourism industry was really bad,” Wayne said.

Sara Shera concurred: “I don’t think any amount of money is enough. The government should focus on providing more opportunities for MSMEs to be able to do business without red tape.

“But the government could also improve the laws and enforcement because we also have a lot of illegal operators here who take business away from legit businesses,” she said.