Training is grossly lacking in the travel sector
It will remain status quo until major stakeholders such as government agencies, educational institutions, training providers and travel industry players are prepared to make paradigm shifts.
And it would have to start with the fundamentals, such as the definition of tourism and hospitality.
In the academia, tourism is defined as activities of people travelling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for leisure, business or other purposes; and hospitality is the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
Hospitalitem is a Latin word meaning "friendliness to guests" and showing hospitality involves making others feel comfortable and welcome in our home, hotel, city or country.
These academic definitions are taught in educational institutions for students to acquire general knowledge, which is essential to excel in any career. But many jobs also require technical knowledge and specific skills, which could be acquired through formal training.
Tourism and hospitality are perceived as commercial activities by industry players. The former is a wide-ranging business that encompasses several major sectors and is overlapped by many other industries. The latter is a huge sector comprising accommodation and food and beverage, commonly known as hotels and restaurants.
Under the country’s inbound tourism receipt, the major sectors are shopping (31.4 percent), followed by accommodation (26.3 percent), food and beverage (13.8 percent), airfare (7.2 percent) and transport (six percent). As such, retail, hotel and restaurant are the main sectors, raking up a combined 71.5 percent of the inbound tourism cake.
While tourism covers many types of businesses, travel is best defined by licences issued by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture to regulate the sector. Under the Tour Operation Business and Travel Agency Business regulations, they are for ticketing, outbound and inbound.
The ticketing licence permits the licensee to operate a travel agency, acting as agents for airlines, hotels, theme parks, tour wholesalers and other principals.
An outbound licence allows the company to organise tours and sell packages to overseas destinations, and inbound tour operators can accept bookings from overseas and provide pre-arranged services upon visitors’ arrival to our country.
Inbound tour operators also accept bookings from within Malaysia for tours within the country. Apart from Malaysians, a significant portion of this business comes from foreigners already in the country, such as expatriates and tourists on optional tours.
Many tasks to be mastered
While domestic tourism is defined as Malaysians travelling within the country, domestic tours are not confined to Malaysians, and likewise for outbound tours. Enlightened tour operators sell domestic tours to foreigners in Malaysia, and outbound tours to residents of neighbouring countries to join tour groups departing from Malaysia.
While education on tourism and hospitality are largely academic, training is focused on specific tasks. There are many tasks to be mastered to perform well in a job, and many jobs in one sector. Hence the difference between education and training is wide, more like a chasm than a gap.
In Malaysia, participants in competency based training may acquire the ability to perform tasks and duties set by the National Occupation Skills Standard (NOSS) or the Asean Common Competency Standards for Tourism Professionals (ACCSTP).
NOSS for the travel sector has been developed and revised over the past two decades, but only one of the original 28 has been actively used for training, and that is in Level 3 for Tourist Guides.
This was because the 1,200 training hours required for Level 3 NOSS was reduced to 500 hours, with 260 hours in the classroom, 160 hours to work on assignments and 80 hours practical on a coach.
The shortened hours allow part-time classes to be conducted over four to six months, attracting working adults to attend training and passing the examinations to obtain the tourist guide licence.
But a licence is not required for other jobs in the travel sector and two weeks would be sufficient to train many industry practitioners to be competent in their jobs. This is more pragmatic than getting school leavers to spend two years in a training centre to acquire a Level 3 Malaysian Skills Certificate (MSC) under NOSS.
Mercifully, the Department of Skills Development introduced an 18-month National Dual Training System programme. Apprentices could acquire a Level 3 Certificate in Travel and Tour Operation by spending around 25 percent of the time in the classroom learning on theory, and the balance in the workplace for practical training.
Other than tourist guides, there is hardly any other training for jobs in the travel sector that allows trainees to obtain the MSC. Apart from lengthy hours, training providers would also have to develop written instructional materials based on the selected NOSS, which is no easy task and time-consuming.
Competency standards already set
On the other hand, common competency standards have already been set and agreed by all 10 Asean countries. Under the ACCSTP, 242 tool boxes were developed for the four labour divisions under hotel services and two under travel services.
For example, one of the competency standards is “Manage legal requirements for business compliance”. For this one competency unit, a 144-page Trainer Guide, a 138-page Trainee Manual and a 44-page Assessor Manual have been developed for conducting training.
In other words, ready resources are available under the “Asean Mutual Recognition Arrangement for Tourism Professionals” to implement training for the travel sector, which lags behind hotels on human capital development.
As our homegrown NOSS has failed to facilitate in churning out skilled labour for the travel sector, it would be wise for relevant government agencies to agree and allow training providers the option to offer ACCSTP, which would be more marketable to Malaysians harbouring ambitions to work in neighbouring countries, and attract Asean students to study in Malaysia.
Such mobility of students and labour is well in line with the Asean spirit and the very essence of tourism, but placing an embargo would have the opposite effect. Last year, more than 20 million or 75.8 percent of all visitors to Malaysia came from the other nine Asean countries.
Asean celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and its priority for the next 50 years would be centred on people and the development of small businesses, such as travel services, which can be the most effective and sustainable solution for creating more inclusive growth.
Malaysia is well positioned to play many leading roles in Asean. By fully embracing the ACCSTP, the beneficiaries include our travel sector and tourism industry as a whole, as 27 million Asean visitors are expected by 2020.
But it would not happen by magic, for concerted efforts are required from both public and private sectors to grow visitor arrivals, such as formal training for the travel sector.