LETTER | Tourism Malaysia has released foreign tourist arrival figures for the first three months of this year, which showed an unprecedented 99.4 percent decrease compared to the first quarter of last year.
From January to March, arrivals totalled only 25,256, in contrast to 4,233,455 last year. For the first time ever, Singapore no longer contributed the largest number of foreign tourists to Malaysia. It felled three places to number four, after Thailand, Indonesia and China.
Who would have thought that on average, there were only 322 arrivals per month from Singapore during the first quarter? For the 84-month period from 2013 to 2019, arrivals from Singapore averaged over a million per month.
In April, a reporter asked for my comments regarding the call made by the United Nations World Travel Organisation for stronger coordination on travel protocols between countries to ensure the safe restart of tourism and avoid another year of massive losses for the sector.
This came after new data showed an 87 percent fall in international tourist arrivals globally in January as compared to 2020. My comments were reported in “Malaysia will see just over 132,000 foreign tourists this year says expert” published on April 19.
My projection of 11,000 visitor arrivals per month was based on actual numbers from April to December last year, which averaged 11,030 per month. Last September, I predicted that total arrivals will be 4.3 million in 2020 compared to 26.1 million in 2019, dropping by 83.5 percent.
Later, I finetuned the decrease to 83.4 percent at 4,332,731 as published in “2020 was bad for tourism, 2021 could be worse” on January 9. At the end of February, figures released by Tourism Malaysia gave the number as 4,332.772, which was only 9 fewer than my prediction.
As little has changed for more than a year, the number of foreigners allowed into the country on essential travel will hover around 11,000 per month. If so, we will end up with 132,000 foreign visitors for this year, which will be a decrease of 97 percent over last year.
Few sectors have been devastated by this pandemic more than international travel. Although outbound tour operators have lost huge income opportunities, inbound and transport operators suffered a double whammy when their properties and equipment lost most of their market value.
After the movement control order had to be introduced in March last year to control the Covid-19 outbreak, market values of passenger planes, cruise ships, tour buses, theme parks, luxury hotels, holiday resorts and entertainment centres felled like sacks of potatoes.
Last July, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the tourism sector will need four years to recover. But if visitor arrivals for this year are only 132,000, it may take a decade for arrivals to return to the 2019 level of 26 million.
Growth over the next few years would be painfully slow and often interrupted by outbreaks of Covid-19 including new variants. More investments are unlikely for the tourism industry as even recommissioning existing facilities and mothballed assets may not be financially feasible.
It is no easy task to get grounded aircraft and crew flying again, anchored cruise ships sailing the high seas, languished tour buses crisscrossing the country, closed theme parks reopened for thrill-seekers, shuttered hotels operating again like clockwork, deserted resorts swarmed with holidaymakers, and empty entertainment centres bursting with high spenders.
The good times are gone for now and will become a distant memory over the next few years. It is better to get real as the days of mass tourism is over. Many people will find it hard just to survive and it is no longer fun travelling for holidays when there are sufferings all around.
It would be foolish for those who have benefitted greatly from tourism to count on the rapid return of international travel. Unlike the end of conventional wars when things could quickly return to normal and people swiftly rebuild their lives, wars on coronaviruses are unlikely to end anytime soon.
We have hit rock-bottom, and the only way is up. But sadly, we will stay here as long as a large number of people in our midst continue to adopt a lackadaisical attitude in combating Covid-19. They can easily be seen chatting closely with each other while sitting, standing or walking.
Apart from speeding up vaccination, more people need to practise physical distancing and embrace double masking. The sooner we bring down the rate of Covid-19 infections, the faster we can begin to haul ourselves up from this lowest ebb of our economy, including tourism.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.