A tourism expert in Sabah warns that industry players will have to revamp their approach to business in order to survive the Covid-19 crisis and the mitigation measures taken to curb the spread of the virus, especially in East Malaysia where domestic tourist arrivals were lower than those in the peninsula even before the onslaught of the pandemic.
Jennifer Chan of Universiti Malaysia Sabah said organisations must reconfigure their business models “to weather the storm”.
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, the Borneo Tourism Research Centre director said this goes for both government and industry players whom she said would have to bank on domestic tourism in light of the international travel ban enforced early on during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has changed people’s behaviour,” she said. “They now prefer to travel to less crowded places which offer nature sights and outdoor and adventure activities such as hiking and jungle trekking.”
Such experiences might naturally be associated with Sabah and Sarawak as opposed to other more heavily developed areas, but Chan warned that homestay operators in the Bornean states would have trouble attracting local tourists without an inclusive strategy by policymakers.
“If you look at our domestic tourist arrival statistics, Sabah and Sarawak have the lowest numbers compared to other states in the peninsula,” she said, blaming this on a lack of basic facilities.
According to her, states like Pahang, Melaka and Kuala Lumpur have the highest numbers.
The tourism, arts and culture ministry recently said that tourism workers in Sarawak and Langkawi would receive their jabs as soon as the first two phases of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK) are complete.
Tourism minister Nancy Shukri said her ministry was working with PICK coordinating minister Khairy Jamaluddin to vaccinate those in the states’ tourism sector who are still working during the lockdown, including staff at hotels that have been converted into quarantine centres.
But given the recent extension of the lockdown period from June 14 to June 28, Chan said the tourism sector might not last until industry players are completely vaccinated, especially in Sabah and Sarawak.
“The tourism industry is one that is easy to enter but also easily collapses. It faces a downturn like no other,” she said.
“Companies reliant on visitors may not be the best placed to survive.”
She urged stakeholders, experts and tour operators to work together with the government to redesign their strategies.
“Tourism suffers so much because it is very sensitive to the economy, health and safety,” she said.
“To keep business alive, we need more sustainable, comprehensive and resilient policies for tourism development.”
Noting the fluid and unpredictable nature of the pandemic, she said such measures must align with current situations.
She added that tourism is about more than physical landmarks and buildings.
“A hotel is just a tangible product to provide services. More important is the intangibility of the place that offers the services and experiences to tourists – and this requires physical interaction between the host and tourist,” she said.
But while this will be difficult given the physical distancing needed to keep the virus at bay, Chan said hope remains for those struggling on.
“The situation now doesn’t look encouraging but the positive note is that based on my research, people still want to go travelling because it has always been a part of our life.”
For now, she advised those in the industry to enhance their management skills especially in terms of cleanliness and hygiene to assure returning tourists of their safety.
“The government should also gear up its efforts to provide better logistics and communication infrastructure in Sabah and Sarawak.
“I believe through concerted efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, our tourism will become a more resilient industry,” she said.