How are tourism workers coping with no tourists in Malaysia?

Chester Chin

THE STAR – With travel at a standstill, many workers in the Malaysian tourism landscape – tour guides, hoteliers, tour operators, bus drivers, pilots and cabin crew, just to name a few – have found their vocation grinding to a halt.

For tourist guides especially, the border closure has hit them really badly, as international visitors have not been allowed to enter the country for holiday purposes since the movement control order (MCO) was imposed on March 18 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Malaysia.

This has caused some tourist guides to take a hiatus from the industry, while others have been using this period to reinvent their business and learn new skills.

Veteran tour guide Jane Rai, who has been in the industry for over three decades, has been learning all about digitalisation and how to use technology to her advantage.

“I always believe that you must have an additional skill as a guide. These days, I’m learning how to do short videos and virtual tours. I am also learning to leverage social media to promote my services,” said the award-winning guide.

In the past few months, Rai has been working with partners and sponsors to bring her ‘Free Walk Kuala Lumpur Unscripted’ project onto the virtual platform as she said there is a demand for virtual tours.

At the same time, though, she also hopes that travel will pick up again one day.

“I believe people will still want to travel once they can do so. The travel industry may look bleak now, but I’m hopeful,” she shared.

Petaling Street empty without tourists and traffic during the movement control order. PHOTO: THE STAR

At the peak of his career as a tourist guide, Raja Shaharil Nasir had a job many might have envied.

He spent his days at some of the most popular attractions in the country, striking up conversations with travellers of various nationalities.

Occasionally, he would travel abroad to exotic countries and experience the four seasons. The travel business was good back then, and so was life. But all that changed when the COVID-19 pandemic broke, forcing countries to close their borders and effectively crippling the tourism industry.

“The last batch of tourists I guided was a group from Turkey. That was back in February this year,” he said.

According to Raja Shaharil, local tourism workers began to feel the pinch beginning December last year.

“Groups of travellers were cancelling their holidays to Malaysia. By then, even cruise lines have cancelled their trips here,” said the guide who specialises in the European English-speaking tourist market.

Fortunately for Raja Shaharil, he managed to secure work as an audio-visual technician with a local company.

Meanwhile, some of his fellow tour guides have resorted to doing online businesses, driving for e-hailing car services or working with security companies as guards.

“I think for many of us, we just grabbed whatever opportunity we can find,” he said.

Raja Shaharil’s story is one that many in the tourism fraternity resonate with at the moment.

Malaysian Tourist Guides Council President Jimmy Leong said that because tour guide services are usually taken up by foreign visitors to the country, there has not been any work for them in the industry for many months.

“With borders closed, there is not a single international visitor coming in for a vacation. Domestic travellers are restricting themselves in a ‘new norm’ by holidaying with just their family members.

“Thus the services of licensed tourist guides are not needed,” he said.

According to Leong, the most affected age group are those between 30 and 55.

“The reason is because they are rooted in the profession for many years and within this age they remain as the breadwinner for their families. The sudden cut-off in income has affected them,” he said.

To enable the travel industry to move forward, Leong suggests creating the right kind of perception. “We need to promote confidence among travellers to visit our shores. Then, we need our borders to reopen. This is the key to revitalising the tourism industry and our economy,” he said.

Leong highlighted the establishment of the Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) and Periodic Commuting Arrangements (PCA) between Malaysia and Singapore.

“If these cross-border lanes are opened for other sectors it would be good. The ASEAN member countries should take this initiative with other destinations in the region in order to be successful,” he said.

While assistance from the government is crucial to help the sector recover, some tourism workers are taking the pandemic in their stride and reinventing themselves.

Rai believes that there are many opportunities tourism workers can tap into with the help of technology and the Internet.

Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri said the ministry will intensify usage of technology and innovation to boost the tourism sector.

“It can be done by developing a public data centre to assist in the marketing and promotion of products and services related to tourism, arts, culture and heritage,” she said in a statement.

Nancy added that tourism infrastructure facilities, outreach, upskilling and reskilling programmes would be given priority in the road to recovery.

Nancy also said that the retraining of tourism sector workers such as tour guides would also be focussed on digitalisation with the emphasis on the Internet of Things.

This is good news for Rai, who thinks that the best help the government can give now is free training for those employed in the tourism sector.

“Please provide training programmes to help us upskill. That would help us to strategise our business in the future,” she said, adding that she is also keen to learn coding.

When the Budget 2021 was unveiled on November 6, many key tourism stakeholders were quick to voice their dissatisfaction.

Leong said that tourism partners need the government to address their existing problems and needs.

“It’s time that priority be given to handling the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues for most Malaysians,” Leong said.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) President Datuk Tan Kok Liang said there weren’t any solid initiatives to protect jobs and tourism businesses.

He said that the Budget must address the key issue of protecting jobs.

“The wage subsidy programmes should have been enhanced to avoid continuing lay-offs and the loan moratorium should be extended up to June 2021 for tourism businesses,” he said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) said the allocation for tourism “fell short of tourism industry’s expectations”.

“Little was mentioned on sustaining tourism businesses other than the extension of wage subsidy at the same amount of MYR600 per employee, per month. The industry has long voiced that the amount is insufficient,” said MAH chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.

MAH data reveals that hotel occupancy dropped to an unprecedented low in March at approximately five per cent when the MCO was implemented.

However, the ministry has since clarified that apart from the allocation for the tourism sector mentioned during the Budget speech (MYR1.14 billion), an additional MYR200 million has been set aside to implement a stimulus package under the Tourism Recovery Plan 2021.

The ministry hopes this stimulus package would help boost the industry, as well as benefit not just tourism players but all Malaysians too.

In a recent media briefing, Nancy also shared that the ministry is currently discussing how to disburse this year’s remaining stimulus allocation as soon as possible to enable the industry’s recovery.

Malaysia Tourism Council President Uzaidi Udanis said that he lauds the government’s initiatives to promote ecotourism and heritage tourism.

“This would create new job opportunities for those in tourism segments,” he said, adding that operators should also consider moving part of their businesses online.

Rai certainly agrees with this. “That is something tourist guides can consider in order to keep their vocation relevant,” she said.