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LETTER | Introduce 'One Pass' to enhance tourism experience

LETTER | Last week, I felt a sense of déjà vu when reading a report that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), together with five leading corporations, launched the TAGTHAi Pass, a digital travel pass to bolster Thailand’s tourism industry.

Since December 2020, I have repeatedly proposed a similar concept, which was disseminated through my published letters. Although I have recommended many new ideas for the betterment of our tourism, only a few were taken up by local industry players.

Our lackadaisical attitude has allowed Thailand to leapfrog us in tourism. In 2014, Malaysia received 27.44 million foreign tourist arrivals and 26.10 million in 2019. In 2014, Thailand attracted 24.81 million foreign tourists, but the number skyrocketed to 39.92 million in 2019.

In December 2020, I asserted that travel agents must re-explore a whole new world to survive. I called on local tour operators to re-engineer their business as they must change and adapt to a vastly different scenario transformed by the pandemic and rebuild their business models.

If a training workshop for travel agents were to be conducted by a competent facilitator, participants could be coaxed to cough up crazy proposals for argument’s sake in brainstorming sessions. Ideas that appear weak, weird or wild initially may later turn out to be gems.

For inbound tour operators, instead of continuing to rely only on piecemeal bookings from their overseas counterparts and sales generated via websites or social media, they could also explore and tap into the much bigger market of travellers that have been bypassing travel agents.

A large tour company or a consortium of smaller ones could pool their resources together and hire technical experts to help develop a “One Pass” that can be used not just for transport by train, bus, taxi or e-hailing but also at hotels, restaurants, shops, attractions, entertainment spots and for sightseeing tours within the city or overland excursions to another state.

Utilizing QR codes, the travel pass could easily be distributed and used at a large number of participating service providers. For example, they could be sold at say RM199 per day on a twin-sharing basis and registered users may opt for any form of land transport within the city, a hotel room for the night including breakfast the next morning, a buffet or set meal for lunch or dinner, entrance tickets to many attractions, free gifts at selected shops and entertainment spots, join sightseeing tours, excursions, adventures, and many other activities.

Some tourists could exceed the value of the pass while others may underutilise. The former will enjoy their stay to the hilt while the latter is happy with the convenience and facilities. By tracking and recording tourists’ activities, the science of travel business could be deciphered using big data analytics, and no longer based on assumptions or gut feelings.

Just like how the traditional taxi industry had been decimated by e-hailing services, a multipurpose travel pass using an app may replace the services of travel agents and tourist guides, as most customers will find it more comfortable, convenient and cheaper using a smartphone than talking to another person who may not understand correctly or communicate poorly.

In another opinion piece in December 2020, I pointed out we should get ready for travel services of the future. The amalgamation of fifth-generation technology standards for broadband cellular network (5G) with artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), and augmented reality (AR) will revolutionise the tourism industry, and old-school travel agents and tourist guides will become redundant.

Just like Uber, which initially subsidised 58 percent of the fares on average globally so that passengers paid only 42 percent of the actual fare in order to steamroll the competitors, new start-ups offering state-of-the-art travel passes are likely to adopt similar strategies to compete with each other.

For example, a budget travel pass selling for RM199 per day could be worth RM300, a RM299 premium pass worth RM450, and RM399 luxury pass worth RM600. This would allow tourists to choose the standard of hotel and room they wish to stay without having to compromise their lifestyle and is also in line with the National Tourism Policy of attracting high-spending tourists.

The multi-purpose travel pass would also ensure that many sectors gain from tourism as registered users could travel freely in trains, buses, taxis and e-hailing vehicles, have meals at participating restaurants, entry into attractions, pick up free gifts at shops and entertainment spots, join sightseeing tours, excursions, adventures, and other activities for experiential tourism.

Apart from a long list of options available at any one time during their stay at a destination, registered users would also be able to access smart information made possible by AI. While using their smartphone to record something interesting, they could also activate AR for a virtual tourist guide to appear on screen and deliver meaningful commentaries.

Apart from becoming drone pilots to capture close-up videos of distant objects where permitted, tourist guides of the future must also be YouTubers able to introduce and record something interesting for posterity, instead of allowing the service performed to disappear with the wind.

Travel services of the future would be vastly different from those pre-pandemic. In October 2021, I pronounced that travel agents of the future would be in the form of super-apps, as it would be a matter of time before they are easily available for international travellers and popular with foreign visitors in the same way e-hailing apps have succeeded in cornering the market away from traditional taxis.

Giant online travel agents (OTAs) have long captured the lion’s share of flight and hotel bookings that even brick-and-mortar travel agents buy from them. Meanwhile, the online marketplace for lodging had taken away market share from hotels by offering cheaper private accommodation.

New businesses with the highest growth potential are those that could build up a gargantuan customer database that may initially begin with just one service. For example, Grab has introduced more than 10 on-demand ride-hailing services that include taxis, private cars, car-pooling, bicycle sharing, shuttle services, and motorbike taxis.

It has already ventured into multiple consumer services such as hotel bookings, on-demand video platforms, ticket purchasing, food ordering, grocery shopping and a wide range of financial services.

It will be no surprise if super-apps decimate traditional travel agents by promoting travel passes at various destinations offering the greatest variety of options for hotel stay, meals, sightseeing, transfers, entrance tickets and other activities that tourists desire but at half the normal prices.

Hence, travel agents of the future would be super-apps that travellers could choose for the best options available, and book directly as and when needed without going through intermediaries, and they no longer need to ask around for information that may be inaccurate or out of date.

With the cancellation of Visit Malaysia Year (VMY) 2020, little has changed since 2014 which was our last VMY. Our tourism industry players seem to be caught in a time warp of past ideas, especially those that have been successful before the pandemic and are unwilling to change.

The Kodak moment used to mean something that was worth saving should be captured in film. At its peak in 1996, the Eastman Kodak Company was worth US$31 billion (RM139 billion), and Kodak was the fifth-most valuable brand in the world. It refused to embrace changes and collapsed in 2012.

Travelocity, the first OTA, was created in 1996. Since then, OTAs have captured an average of 40 percent of the total global travel market for hotels, airlines, packaged tours, rail, cruises, and other services, obliterating many traditional travel agents.

It is a matter of time before most tourists download apps for travel passes that provide all the options available in a destination at any one time during their stay so that they could easily choose their hotel, food, beverage, transport, sightseeing and entertainment, all prepaid.

Introducing the “One Pass” in Malaysia would require huge funding. In Thailand, five corporations, AIS, TRUE, Kasikorn Bank, ThaiBev and Dusit Thani, pooled their resources to attract tourists and facilitate their stay, without them being left alone to fend for themselves.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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