Open letter to new Minister of Tourism

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Ideas, if implemented, that would put Malaysia on the tourism map.

Bernama

Congratulations to Tiong King Sing on your appointment as the Tourism Minister for our country. Unlike before, ministers in the new cabinet are likely to receive greater respect, and the rakyat is looking forward to changes and not more of the same.

While you may not be able to hit the ground running, many quarters are ready to pounce on any action or inaction you would be taking. What awaits you will be the customary getting-to-know-you meetings with staff of your ministry and leaders of many tourism associations.

Although engagements with the private sector must continue, the ministry should not carry on with business as usual by limiting to leaders of NGOs. You ought to reach out to individuals that possess some of the best brains in the tourism business but has been averting the limelight.

Many tourism industry players have a distaste for politicking to compete for elected office. They have little or no interest in jockeying for positions and spend precious time and energy running the affairs of tourism and travel associations.

Instead of dishing out empty rhetoric without proposing concrete steps, successful entrepreneurs would rather concentrate on their business. With sharper focus, they have better ideas and clarity to overcome the many challenges and issues besetting the tourism industry.

This is more so for travel and tour operators. The number of companies currently registered under Tour Operating Business and Travel Agency Business (TOBTAB) regulations is 4,773.

But most of them are barely surviving, especially those with only the “Inbound” licence for handling incoming foreign tourists that also allows them to offer domestic tours and operate excursion buses, tour vans, and car rental services.

In the decade between 2010 and 2019, foreign tourist arrivals have plateaued, averaging 25.8 million per year. Before Covid-19 struck in early 2020, arrivals totalled 26.1 million in 2019.

Sadly, foreign tourist arrivals dropped to 4.3 million in 2020 and only 134,728 in 2021, severely impacting tour operators and hotels that have been relying largely on foreign tourists.

While domestic tourism expenditure was a massive RM103.2 billion in 2019, about 86% were spent on shopping, automotive fuel, food and beverage, visited households and accommodation.

The share for tour operators was minuscule, at less than a quarter of one percent because public transport and accommodation could be booked directly by domestic tourists, and majority of domestic visitors drove their own vehicles, spending a whopping RM15.5 billion on fuel alone.

As international tourism is expected to fully recover only by 2024, it would be difficult for tour operators to survive the four-year drought until next year. A few hundred tour companies have closed, while a lesser number of new companies have been set up but with hardly any business.

I should know as I am a trainer for the Travel and Tours Enhancement Course that tour operators must attend to renew their TOBTAB licences, and for the Travel and Tours Management Course that successful applicants must attend before receiving their new licences.

And as long as tour operators do not offer products needed by domestic tourists or beneficial to domestic excursionists, the demand for their services by domestic visitors will remain low.

The few takers will be those going to remote places where public transport is scarce or non-existent, such as visiting national parks or exploring caves that also require entry permits and nature guides.

Domestic tourism may have a huge potential, but opportunities will remain hidden and untapped if tour operators could not think outside the box. Nothing less than a paradigm shift is needed to create totally new tour packages and travel services that are wanted by the locals.

To incubate ideas, tourism operators need the right environment such as labs with around 30 participants each. After a brainstorming session in the morning, they are to be separated into six groups, each to work on at least one new project and prepare slides for presentation.

Participants will be tasked to work on something they could have dismissed as impossible on their own. But when collaborating with others, they are to attempt to make them possible by assuming that all obstacles and challenges could eventually be removed or overcome.

There are bound to be many interesting proposals put forward by tourism lab participants and I alone have a handful of ideas. I have spelt out some of them in writing many months ago and have been waiting for the right time to share by getting them published for public consumption.

Over the next few days, I will be forwarding to the media “Is our tourism industry reaching maturity or still at its infancy?”. This will be followed by “The best way to develop tourism is through shopping”. The last will be “Virtually everyone can provide tourist accommodation’.

These ideas, when implemented, would put Malaysia on the tourism map. Hundreds of tour buses would be busy running daily on new tours and excursions for foreign tourists and domestic visitors. And tourism will be brought to the doorsteps of many homes nationwide.

Three days after the Movement Control Order was first introduced on March 18, 2020, my article “Torchbearers can help boost domestic tourism’ was published in my column by New Sarawak Tribune.

But I never get to conduct the proposed one-day “torchbearers” workshop that I have conceptualised to train tour operators, tourism frontliners, civil servants and community leaders. So far, nothing new has been introduced to develop domestic tourism to its fullest potential.

However, if your ministry were to embark on a new initiative such as organising one-day tourism labs nationwide, tourism in Malaysia could be raised by several notches. This would revitalise domestic and inbound tour operators, benefitting many industry players and visitors.

The views expressed here are strictly those of YS Chan from Kuala Lumpur.