Tourists from China have returned to Malaysia. Now what?

China has reopened its borders after almost three years

A composite image of a tourist in front of the Kuala Lumpur twin towers and an airplane.
China has announced international travel between the country and the rest of the world. But what does it mean for us? (Photo: Getty Images)

By Vincent Tan

As China declared a major reversal to its “Zero COVID” policy in December 2022, one aspect of the announcement that drew the bulk of attention was the resumption of international travel between the country and the rest of the world.

On the one hand, the relaxing of rules for inbound and outbound travellers was met with joy. Ditto the lifting of restrictions on international flight numbers and passenger capacity.

Yet the pent-up demand for travel — which saw a massive increase in outbound flight bookings from mainland China almost as soon as the announcement of loosened restrictions was made — also resulted in a fair amount of trepidation.

A large part of the reason for the apprehension was Beijing's purported lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 situation in the country in addition to a reported surge in infections and deaths around the time of China dismantling its stringent pandemic rules.

Nervousness in Malaysia

In Malaysia, news of China reopening its borders received generally mixed reactions, with some quarters initially calling for strict curbs or even suspending the entry of Chinese tourists altogether.

Indeed, some of the reactions — including from political parties, celebrities and even certain tourism industry players — were deemed so problematic that they resulted in the country's new Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Tiong King Sing warning against overreactions, adding, too, that Malaysia risked losing at least RM30 billion in revenue if it discriminated against Chinese visitors.

Notably, Tiong's remarks were echoed by the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta), whose president Tan Kok Liang remarked that calls to shut Malaysia's borders against Chinese travellers were "irrational and irresponsible".

A chinese Malaysian leader talking at a press conference.
Matta president Tan Kok Liang believes that calls to shut Malaysia's borders against travellers from China are "irrational and irresponsible". (Photo: Malaysian Association Of Tour And Travel Agents)

Yet, despite this, there were those like Sarawakian MP Dr Kelvin Yii who urged caution and proposed pre-departure and arrival tests for travellers from China.

In the end, however, despite assurances from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of stricter, more balanced, measures that would have prioritised safety over tourism and the economy, authorities said that there would be no big changes to standard operating procedures when Beijing officially reopened its gates on 8 January, 2023.

What the Malaysian government did put in place, however, were enhanced screening measures — comprising the testing of wastewater from aircraft arriving from China, temperature checks on all inbound travellers, and further examinations of self-declared and symptomatic COVID-19 cases — at the nation's immigration entry and exit points.

Still, and important to note, there has yet to be a major rise in COVID cases in Malaysia.

Prepared and ready

For Dr Kuljit Singh, head of the Association of Private Hospitals Malaysia (APHM), there should really be no reason to worry about the influx of Chinese tourists, even considering the expected spike in tourist arrivals over the Chinese New Year period.

In fact, he notes that Malaysia is in a good position to face another COVID-19 wave, following the experiences of 2020 and 2021, which saw the public and private healthcare sectors and even the Malaysian military combining effectively to handle the pandemic.

Commenting on the immigration and health measures to screen inbound travellers, he remarks further that these are welcome.

Nevertheless, there are many other possible ways for COVID-19 variants to reach the country besides via immigration entry and exit points.

"(The measures) are good to some extent but they will never be a 100 per cent way of preventing the virus from entering into the country," Dr Kuljit said.

A woman taking a picture of the Kuala Lumpur twin towers.
Tourism has always played a big part in Malaysia's economy. (Photo: Getty Images)

Uneven measures

Malaysia has, of course, not been alone in adopting a wait-and-see approach to the situation with Chinese tourists.

Unsurprisingly, however, there is little, if any, uniformity; even across the Asian region where travellers from China had spent a lot in the years before the pandemic.

For instance, Thailand announced strict measures for inbound travellers only to then roll back those restrictions and welcome "emotional" Chinese tourists with garlands. Similarly, the Philippines also considered but then decided not to implement more stringent controls.

Yet the situation has been quite different for two of China's closest neighbours; South Korea and Japan.

Never the best of friends, both countries have said that they would not increase flights from China, and would also limit the number of airports for arrivals. Additionally, travellers flying directly from China are being required to take pre- and post-departure PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, with South Korea adding that it is limiting the number of short-term visas for travellers from China.

These announcements have prompted a backlash, with Beijing imposing a tit-for-that halt on the issuance of short-term visas to South Korean and Japanese nationals.

Still, the bigger concern here is what impact all of the restrictions and counter-restrictions will have on travel and tourism, outside and inside China.

Impact on tourism

According to Malaysian government data, China was the third biggest source country for tourist arrivals here (behind Singapore and Indonesia) in 2019.

And the hope is millions more than the 3.1 million that arrived then will make their way to our shores this year.

Regrettably, early predictions of a tourism and travel boom in Asia have not materialised, with many Chinese reportedly preferring to stay home.

That, however, could change as the year progresses and concern about a new COVID-19 wave dissipates.

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