Tourism at Two Kuala and Beyond

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While there was a dearth of visitors to Kuala Sala, Kuala Perlis saw huge crowds at the ferry terminal.

Kuala Sala and Kuala Perlis are both coastal towns 65 kms apart, one in the state of Kedah and the other in Perlis. Recently, one of them was severely impacted by the drop of visitors while the other had to cope with throng of holidaymakers on their way to Langkawi.

On August 15, Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah announced the detection of a Sala cluster after a local man in Guar Chempedak in Sala Besar was tested positive for Covid-19 three days earlier.

As Guar Chempedak is more than 20 kms away, Kuala Sala is well within the safe zone, but local businesses were crippled when people around the region, fearful of the Sala cluster, stopped going to Kuala Sala for shopping.

As a result, fishmongers lost over 90 percent of their takings and fishermen stopped fishing altogether as they could not sell their catches. Traders in this town rely heavily on domestic visitors as 70 percent of local businesses are dependent on outsiders shopping at Kuala Sala.

While there was a dearth of visitors to Kuala Sala, Kuala Perlis saw huge crowds at the ferry terminal last Thursday, which was Awal Muharram and the start of the school holiday. For almost five hours, passengers were sardine-packed while waiting for departures to Langkawi, which were delayed by low tide and sheer volume of vacationers.

It appeared that those eager to travel for holiday or makan angin (consume wind), were willing to throw caution to the wind by not observing physical distancing, and not realising that masks could only offer an average of 80 percent protection if properly worn.

It also demonstrated the pent-up demand for domestic tourism, especially budget tourists travelling in their own vehicles or using public buses, trains and ferries, and staying at cheaper hotels or private accommodations, patronising stalls and restaurants and shopping for local produce.

But not all tourism players would benefit, such as tour operators and luxury hotels. Domestic travels are largely a do-it-yourself (DIY) arrangement without the need to engage the service of a travel agent or tourist guide, or paying for a tour package with a variety of services.

Guests of luxury hotels are mostly business travellers, but the pandemic has forced many to stay home and conduct business online. Conventions and exhibitions at major hotels are unlikely to return to its heydays as businesses that could survive this pandemic would have adjusted to the new normal.

Interestingly, a recent survey by a market research firm found that 46 percent of Malaysians cited visiting relatives and friends as the top reason for domestic travel. This is close to the 42.3 percent reported by the Department of Statistics in the 2019 Domestic Tourism Survey.

However, many people would be surprised to learn that Penang and Kedah (comprising Langkawi) are not among the top five states that attracted the largest number of domestic visitors, which included Selangor, Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak.

This is because visitors include excursionists on day trips and tourists that stay overnight away from home. Visits can also be within the state, such as in Sabah and Sarawak, which are huge and may involve travel by air. In other words, domestic travel can be interstate or intrastate.

Also, sale of domestic tour packages does not reflect the popularity of domestic tourism overall as they represent less than one percent of the RM103.2 billion domestic tourism expenditure for last year. Therefore, many other components of tourism ought to be given greater weightage.

Outspoken tourism players usually echo their own sector only and does not reflect the overall picture. As for Kuala Sala and Kuala Perlis, tourism will surely return to normal, much like the ebb and flow of the tides caused by the gravitational pull of the moon.

The views expressed here are strictly those of The True Net reader YS Chan of Petaling Jaya.