Travel operators in Malaysia need help to keep business running

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George, a Kenyan animal migration guide I befriended on one of my travels, recently texted me to lament the absence of tourists in his home country. This is despite the fact that it is currently peak holiday season in the East African country.

It looks like we’re going to lose our jobs anytime now, he said. He added that bosses of travel companies are in a really tough position these days.

George mentioned that the safari jeeps will be repossessed by the banks as the company cannot make the payments. The silver lining is that the animals would probably be happier as they can roam freely and go hunting without interruption from humans.

Malaysia’s Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry recently reported that the local tourism and culture industries have suffered losses as much as RM45bil in the first six months (*The Star Online, June 27). And the loss is expected to double.

I believe many tourism workers worldwide (over a billion people) will be asking these same questions: When will we ever get back to work? Will tourists return?

Under the new normal way of doing things, many tourism operators are forced to change trades to survive. But what else can they do?

Manufacturing, farming, entertainment and many other businesses are equally suffering.

Despite that, many people have comforted me lately with heartwarming words.

“Life’s been hard for you, boss. We’ll go through thick and thin with you, ” one person said to me.

Want to plan for a Cuti-Cuti Malaysia holiday? Check out Sarawak's Mulu Cave with all its natural wonders —  Sarawak TourismWant to plan for a Cuti-Cuti Malaysia holiday? Check out Sarawak’s Mulu Cave with all its natural wonders — Sarawak TourismTo be honest, many in this industry have been struggling to stay afloat.

On the one hand, we want to honour the brand loyalty, trust and support that we have earned through years of hard work. But the reality is, we have to come to terms with having zero income for an indefinite period of time.

Fortunately, some of my staff are willing to go through all this with us at half their salaries. But even with these budget cuts, we still have debts to settle and basic operating expenses to worry about.

During this time, we all have to find some means to survive. Some have started selling durians, homemade cakes, dumplings, fish balls, bento boxes, nasi lemak, murtabak, soya milk, handcrafted soap – anything that they can think of, really – for tiny profits.

I have seen my staff members doing door-to-door sales – which is not related to their profession. As a matter of fact, people everywhere are working very hard to make a living.

Indeed, the most prohibitive movement restrictions are now behind us. Most of the bans have been lifted since June 10, and we can move around the country freely now during the recovery movement control order (MCO) period.

But the truth is that domestic tours are hardly profitable, and our tour fares are on the high side (compared with Indonesia, at least). But as long as people are willing to support the travel industry, there’s always a chance that retail consumerism will get a boost. This in turn will lift the entire tourist economy, creating new job opportunities. Isn’t that wonderful?

While waiting for the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry to come up with solid solutions to fully revive the industry, operators should perhaps stand united and work together.

I’m quite sure our loyal customers will join our tour groups, starting with Cuti-Cuti Malaysia packages, before they “Jalan-Jalan The World”.

Local hotels, tour leaders, tour guides, ground arrangement agencies, and even airline companies nationwide have been willing to echo my call to bring back travel services to the public. They are willing to sacrifice their profits so that we can bring the industry back on its feet again.

I came up with a 3D2N fly-and-stay Langkawi package recently that saw all 40 seats booked within 48 hours. That was very encouraging. We will offer more uniquely themed domestic tours soon, including a Mulu Caves tour in Sarawak and an orangutan tour in Sandakan, Sabah.

And while our tourism ministry has been actively promoting domestic travel, there is still room for improvement.

It was recently reported that the government will provide further financial assistance to local tour operators that offer domestic travel packages. Micro loans will also be extended to eligible agencies.

These are excellent moves, but we hope the solutions are fair, hassle-free and efficient, and will effectively solve some of our main problems.

The government should emulate Singapore or Taiwan in introducing specific projects to help the tourism industry, or at least help those in the industry keep their jobs.

One proposal, which I have mooted before, is to introduce “domestic travel vouchers”, which will encourage Malaysians to travel within the country and spend.

We have all had a very tough time during the lockdown. Whether we are selling durians or eggs now, we should help one another to weather this crisis. Hopefully we will all be able to travel wherever we wish to go, very soon. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.