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Vehicles form a long queue to enter the Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore early on April 1, 2022, before crossing the causeway to Malaysia’s southern Johor state, as both countries reopen its borders to all fully vaccinated travellers. (Photo by Roslan RAHMAN / AFP)

Malaysia’s tourism sector stretched thin amid deluge of post-Covid travellers from Singapore, Indonesia, India and Europe

  • Nation reopened its borders on April 1, hoping for two million visitors this year; one million have already visited, with travel sector battling to cope
  • Some hotels are retraining employees to do other roles too, while seeking part-timers, waiting for foreign workers; meanwhile, fewer flights than pre-Covid days means fewer options – deterring some travellers
Just two months after reopening its borders, closed to international visitors since the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, Malaysia has managed to hit half of its target of two million visitors for 2022.

As of last weekend, over 600,000 of one million arrivals came from neighbouring Singapore, which shares a land crossing with Malaysia.

Singapore, which has lifted most Covid-19 travel restrictions, is currently in the midst of its June school holidays and families have been thronging to the country’s northern neighbour and other nearby vacation destinations.

Some 262,000 people have been makings trips on the two land crossings between the neighbours each day between Friday and Sunday, the city state’s authorities said on Wednesday.

People walk towards Malaysia from southern Thailand on June 1. The two nations have re-opened their borders following a loosening of restrictions related to Covid-19. Photo: AFP

Despite this growing stream of people to Malaysia, though, a lack of airline tickets and hotel rooms is threatening to pour cold water on the resurgence of the tourism sector, struggling to get back on its feet after its borders opened again for business on April 1.

The post-pandemic tourism boom seems to have taken the industry by surprise with the hotel industry – forced to downsize during various lockdowns – having difficulty attracting new staff to keep up with unleashed demand.

Calling government expectations “conservative”, Uzaidi Udanis, president of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA), said the flow of tourists would not be easing off any time soon.

“Looking at the momentum, this is not even the peak season yet, that will be very soon, in July and August,” he said.

A couple take pictures at sunset on a Malaysian beach. Photo: AFP

His sentiment was shared by the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, which expects arrivals to hit the five million mark by the end of the year – more than twice the government’s target.

“They have been closed for two years, staff have moved on to other areas,” said Uzaidi, adding that students are avoiding hospitality courses as their parents feel the sector is not secure, given Covid made many jobless.

He said there was a need to make tourism a “fun and sexy” industry again to entice employees to return.

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On Saturday, tourism minister Nancy Shukri admitted there was a shortage of hotel workers and said some may be “afraid to return to work due to the uncertainty that there might be another closure”.

Christina Toh, the new president of the Malaysian Association of Hotels said hotels had been training existing employees, teaching them new tasks so they could make up for the shortages.

She said the association was also looking for more part-timers and waiting for the government to expedite approvals of permits for foreign workers.

Some hotels in Malaysia are training staff to do other roles too, to cope with a current shortage of workers. Photo: Shutterstock

Tourism, which accounted for 15.9 per cent of Malaysia’s GDP in 2019, suffered greatly during the pandemic. There was a massive decrease of inbound tourists in 2020, with only 4.3 million arrivals recorded compared to 26.1 million the previous year.

Arrivals plummeted further to just 134,728 tourists in 2021, bringing in less than 240 million ringgit (US$54 million) into the Malaysian economy, compared to 86.1 billion ringgit before the spread of Covid in 2019.

Tourism Minister Nancy attributed the current tourism boom to Malaysia’s lenient entry requirements since relaxing most of its pandemic restrictions, with “no mandatory quarantines, Covid-19 screening tests and insurance”.


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Kenneth Hart from Britain told This Week In Asia that, while the ease of entry was definitely welcome, he and his partner had actually made plans to visit Malaysia in 2020. They scrapped the trip when the pandemic spread worldwide.

“So when we heard that Malaysia is now open, it was an easy decision,” said Hart, a digital nomad who is currently travelling through the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Aside from visitors from Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines, and European holidaymakers coming for their summer break, there has been significant interest from India and the subcontinent.

AirAsia, a budget airline, began 30 weekly direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to six Indian airports at the end of May and is expected to increase that number to 71 flights by the end of the year.

“AirAsia Malaysia will soon return to pre-Covid capacity, flying more than 140 weekly services to and from India,” said CEO Riad Asmat.

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Competing budget airline Malindo has also set its sights on the region, adding Delhi and Mumbai to its routes this month. It has been flying to Lahore, Kathmandu, and Dhaka – in Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh, respectively – since April.

While more flights are being added, MITA’s Uzaidi noted that many airlines are still not operating at full capacity, leading to expensive tickets and limited seats that might be difficult to stomach for some would-be travellers.

“The problem is fewer flight options for travellers. We still have a long way to go to get back to how things were before the pandemic,” he said.