Southeast Asia

COVID: Malaysia's tourism sector faces collapse

Published : December 07, 2021 15:29 IST

The Malaysian economy is suffering from lack of tourists. Photo: Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board

Tourism in the Southeast Asian country has plummeted. The consequences are dramatic for those who work in the industry.

Kira, who prefers to not disclose her full name, usually rents out vacation homes in Kuala Lumpur. Before COVID-19 it was a thriving business. After all, her home country is not only known for its rainforests, gorgeous beaches and picturesque islands — travelers have long been drawn to its capital, Kuala Lumpur. Among the city's most popular attractions are the famous 451-meter-high (1230 ft.) Petronas Twin Towers.

But instead of the hoped-for influx of tourists, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic came in 2019. Since then, things have looked rather bleak for Kira, as well as for many of the 3.5 million people in Malaysia who depend on the tourism industry. "I have hardly any bookings and when I do, it's only for a few days. These are mostly business people or some locals who might be visiting family in town," she tells DW. Before the pandemic, her apartments were always fully booked. More than a year ago, the 28-year-old had to move back in with her parents to avoid paying rent.

Supporting women

Young women like Kira in particular are suffering from the impacts of the pandemic in the Muslim country, according to the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri. This is also evidenced by the 2020 analysis by the International Labor Organization, which shows that more female workers in the tourism sector have lost their jobs worldwide than men.

In Malaysia, the number of women working in the tourism industry dropped by more than 2 per cent to 48.3 per cent in 2020, compared to 50.3 per cent in 2019, and the Malaysian government has announced that the 2022 gender-balanced budget will benefit women in tourism equally. To ensure that the tourism industry will eventually recover and be additionally improved, the Malaysian government intends to continue implementing support measures in the future. "The umbrella framework for this is Malaysia's National Tourism Policy 2020-2030, which is based on the three pillars: Competitiveness, Inclusion and Sustainability," Nancy said.

The Langkawi pilot project

On November 15, the Malaysian government opened the popular vacation island of Langkawi to fully vaccinated international tourists without the need to quarantine. It was the first destination in Malaysia to do so. Tourism Malaysia is also working with international airlines to restore Malaysia's long-dormant connections. Malaysia Airlines currently flies twice weekly from London to Kuala Lumpur until the end of December 2021. The frequency is scheduled to increase to five times weekly between January and March 2022.

Although tourism on the island is slowly coming back to life — resorts, hotels, bars and restaurants are open again — the rush of international tourists has so far failed to materialize, despite the well-intentioned measures. There are few tourists to be seen in Kuala Lumpur, but there are foreigners living in the city for work. For locals working in the tourism sector on the Malaysian vacation island, it's a drop in the ocean.

Shaun (not his real name) works for a businessman who rents out small villas on Langkawi to tourists. For the past 1.5 years, however, virtually nothing has been happening here either. Many businesses, especially small ones, have had to close. Shaun is glad that his boss has taken money in hand and used the time of the lull to carry out renovation work, he tells us. But now, tourists must finally come again, otherwise, things will look bad, the young man says. Many of his friends have lost their jobs and have to see how they can make ends meet. Shaun and other affected people are now hoping for the announced government measure.

Hoping for foreign tourists

The Southeast Asian country plans to reopen its borders to international visitors starting January 1 in a bid to revive its ailing tourism sector. While the country has gradually reopened its economy in the face of declining COVID-19 cases, the tourism industry is simply recovering too slowly without foreign visitors, according to National Recovery Council Chairman Muhyiddin Yassin. In Malaysia, 94.9 per cent of adults are already fully vaccinated, based on statistical surveys. It is hoped that the next wave of the virus will not occur after the borders have been opened and that things will finally start to look up again. Malaysia is currently represented at all tourism trade fairs — especially in Europe — in order to promote itself. Yet difficult times may be ahead.

New COVID-19 variant poses risks to tourism

Malaysia has temporarily banned entry from countries that have recorded cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant or are considered high risk, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on December 1. The Southeast Asian nation joins countries around the world in doing so. If it stays that way and the borders are not opened soon as planned, experts say Malaysia's tourism industry faces a complete collapse from which the country would likely struggle to recover. Nevertheless, those affected are not giving up hope and remain true to their motto "Malaysia Boleh!" which, loosely translated, means something like "Malaysia can do it." But since the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, this phrase has acquired an almost sarcastic edge.

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