Tourism has been the sector of Malaysia’s economy worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. After all, the movement control order (MCO) and the lockdown orders to curtail the spread of the virus work against the very essence of the sector, effectively impeding the businesses of hospitality, entertainment, tours, travel, meetings, exposition, concerts, sporting events and social gatherings. Mirza Mohammad Taiyab Beg specially for the Malay Mail.
Many discussions have been held at various levels to address the economic impact of the lockdown and prolonged travel restrictions. The most common phrase derived from the experience of the industry in 2020 is the call for a “new normal” and appropriate preventive action to ensure public health and safety. But let’s leave the battle with this virus to the medical practitioners and healthcare providers, and examine what the factors are that should be addressed to arrive at this “new normal” and rebuild the industry.
The overall performance of the tourism sector of Malaysia has been badly affected by a series of unfortunate incidents even before this pandemic, involving our airlines and the airports. Our share of negative publicity includes the cost and convenience of visa applications and facilities for two major growing markets, South Asia and China. General travellers safety, too, has been an ongoing issue.
To further compound the situation, neighbouring countries in Asean and the new tourism destinations in the region and around the world were moving on high gear in promoting their destinations, coupled with vibrant and strong national economies and political stability. Countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan saw huge growth in their tourism industries during this period. Malaysia, on the other hand, has been seeing a decline in tourism arrivals since 2014.
With the developments that we witnessed, it is quite obvious that the “new normal” will be to look back to the situation in Malaysia some 20 years ago and to do everything that was done then to enjoy the benefits of robust and expanding international tourist arrivals and industry development. Common sense suggests that we have to reverse the undue tendency of the past few years to conserve our resources by cutting back on promotions and shrinking our organisational network and operations. There are no two ways about the need for greater investment for advertising and promotions and expansion of our operations.
Needless to say, we cannot expect more tourists to our shores by doing less. We cannot grow our market size and share by shrinking our communications and transport networks. We cannot correct the negative perception and rebuild our image without working with the media and the travel intermediaries for which capital injections are essential. More than anything else is the need to capitalise on the expertise of industry practitioners with the right knowledge and experience to address major policy issues. In this regard, the various organisations responsible for the industry must be re-examined.
To begin with, the representation on Tourism Malaysia Board and its operational autonomy must be restored. The participation of the heads of the Malaysia Association of Hotels (MAH), Malaysian Association of Tours and Travel Agents (MATTA) and Malaysia Airlines Bhd (MAB) as our national carrier, alongside other industry representatives on its board line up is crucial.The skill and experience of tourism industry professionals should be duly capitalised upon.
Tourism, as a composite industry, thrives on networking, teamwork and strong personal relationships. Without faith and confidence, it will cease to exist. This is where the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board or Tourism Malaysia’s strength lies. Staff with vast experience should be given due support and recognition. Their links with the travel industry should be encouraged and appreciated. The tendency to doubt this relationship in the past, leading to a series of baseless allegations of impropriety and the undue publicity that ensued, has left a mixed perception on the overall integrity of the organisation. This must be corrected.
This matter needs understanding and should always be fact checked. Undue suspicion and continued mistrust by the authorities will only complicate issues and hamper any attempt to get the best performance out of this set of well-exposed and professional staff.
In the last few years, a number of other government-linked companies and agencies were formed, both at the state and federal level, that duplicate the role and functions of Tourism Malaysia. The budgets allocated to these organisations depleted the financial resources available for a focused and extensive international advertising and promotions campaign over a period of several years. As such, the functions and continued existence of these organisation should be reviewed. The savings from their operations should be consolidated to enable a more extensive and effective global promotions campaign.
Given the current scenario and the deep anxiety on the need to revive the industry, the “new normal” for tourism needs a revisit of Malaysia’s tourism industry that dates back to the effects of the currency crisis of 1998. And then charting a path for correcting identified weaknesses, shortcomings or potential opportunities by way of an intensive campaign, both strategic and integrated, as was done then. The campaign during this period of between 1999 and 2007 has been acknowledged worldwide as one of the most effective and outstanding in the quantifiable results achieved. The growth of tourist arrivals to Malaysia then was unprecedented and remains exemplary to many National Tourism Organisations.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Let the industry experts who survived in this period, remain active and ready to serve, do their part for the remaining years of their service and enterprise.
Mirza Mohammad Taiyab Beg is the chairman of the Association of Ex-Staff of Tourism Malaysia (AESTOM).