Tourism Recovery Hinges on Severity of Covid-19 Infections

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Tourism Malaysia posted a 78.6% drop of foreign visitor arrivals for the first nine months of this year compared to the corresponding period last year. More than three months ago, I projected that total arrivals for the whole of 2020 would tumble by 83.5%.

Norafifi Ehsan/The Star

Thanks to the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) introduced in June to replace the Conditional Movement Control Order (CMCO), foreign visitor arrivals increased to 46,422 in the third quarter from 19,542 in the second quarter.

But with CMCO reactivated on November 9, foreign visitor arrivals are expected to be lower in the last quarter. If the number turns out to be 30,581, then total arrivals for the year would be 4,330,000, a drop of 83.4% for 2020 from over 26,1 million in 2019.

The number of foreign visitor arrivals for next year should not be based on figures from April to December of this year, which alternated between CMCO and RMCO and yielded less than 11,000 arrivals per month on average, or no more than 132,000 in a year.

Last month, Malaysia signed agreements with two vaccine suppliers. The first was with the global COVAX facility that guarantees a vaccine supply for 10% of the population through optional purchase agreement. The second was a preliminary purchase agreement with Pfizer to provide 12.8 million doses for 6.4 million Malaysians, which is 20% of the population. The first million doses are to be delivered in the first quarter of next year.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world, with an average of 688,869 new cases daily over a recent 56-day period that caused an average of 12,516 deaths daily. Sadly, we have yet to reach the bottom of this gargantuan sinkhole that is acting like a black hole in space, as it continues to obliterate lives and the global economy.

We can only start to fill this galactic size hole when vaccines have been found effective for the masses, but the road to tourism recovery will be long and arduous. The years ahead will be interspersed with robust growths and sudden plummets caused by new pandemics, natural disasters, armed conflicts, organised cybercrimes and terrorism by organisations or lone wolves.

As for lifting of international borders, land crossings are likely to be opened first. This would draw visitors from neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. Combined, these three countries contributed over 50% of total foreign visitor arrivals to Malaysia last year.

They also accounted for 85% of foreign excursionists that did not stay overnight in Malaysia and the main beneficiaries of their tourism expenditure were retailers at shopping malls and shophouses, restaurants and outlets offering food and beverage. Tourists are visitors that stayed at least one night in Malaysia and spent on accommodation at hotels or private residences.

Visitors from these three countries are largely independent travellers that do not require the service of local travel agents, with many driving their own vehicles into Malaysia or are able to travel confidently using land public transport such as trains, buses, taxis or e-hailing vehicles.

When borders are opened, Malaysia should also be targeting tourists from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as these three countries were least affected by the pandemic. Latest reports confirmed that Vietnam recorded a total of 1,366 Covid-19 cases and 35 deaths, Cambodia with 348 cases and no death, and Laos with only 41 cases and no death.

Thailand also did well with 4,107 cases and 60 deaths, Singapore with 58,2273 cases and only 29 deaths, and Brunei with 151 cases and 3 deaths. Elsewhere in Asean, the figures are high with Myanmar surpassing 99,155 cases and 2,110 deaths, Philippines 441,399 cases and 8,572 deaths and Indonesia 581.550 cases and 17,867 deaths.

But the worst affected countries in Asia are those in the Indian sub-continent, with Nepal over 241.995 cases and 1,614 deaths, Pakistan 420,294 cases and 8,398 deaths, Bangladesh with 479,743 cases and 6,874 deaths, and India a whopping 9,678,600 cases and 140,620 deaths, second only to the United States with 15,159,529 and 288,906 deaths.

Except for Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, inbound and outbound tourism from Malaysia to other Asean and South Asian countries are still a long way off. As it is unlikely to happen next year, it would be better for Malaysians to look towards North-East Asia where the pandemic is largely under control.

Japan recorded 160,098 cases and 2,315 deaths, China 86,634 and 4,634 deaths, South Korea 38,161 cases and 549 deaths, and Taiwan only 716 cases with 7 deaths. Down south, Australia and New Zealand also fared well with the former recording 27,972 cases and 908 deaths and the latter only 2,079 cases and 25 deaths.

As for our traditional long-haul markets in Europe and North America, many of these countries have been ravaged by Covid-19. It will take them several years to recover from the devastation for their economies to recover, lives return to normalcy and long-distance travel to resume.

For next year, inbound and outbound tour operators ought to focus on Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand. Apart from this dozen countries, many are also eying Saudi Arabia (358,922 cases and 5,977 deaths), as we received 121,444 Saudi tourists last year while over 300,000 Malaysians went to Mecca for pilgrimage.

Much of the world’s economy and tourism are likely to start recovering towards the end of next year and still at its recovery phase in 2022 and 2023. Although full recovery is anticipated in 2024, the days of mass tourism with cheap airfares and crowded attractions may be over as physical distancing and wearing of masks would become a permanent feature for many people.

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