KUALA LUMPUR - Hopes that Langkawi will soon reopen to tourism are unlikely to be realised despite talk by ministers of placing it in a so-called travel bubble that will enable vaccinated travellers to visit the Malaysian holiday island while the rest of the country continues to endure travel restrictions.
Senior government figures have mentioned several times in recent months that they were planning to open up international travel corridors to Langkawi, where the dominant tourism industry has been destroyed by its quarantine from the mainland and overseas sources of visitors.
Most recently, Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri said she hoped Qatar Airways would resume flights to Langkawi from Doha through a travel bubble once the Malaysian destination’s population had reached herd immunity.
In a statement issued by her ministry on June 15, the minister said: “Langkawi has been chosen as one of the pilot tourism destinations because the island is a gateway for international flights, including by Qatar Airways.
“It is also part of initial preparations to boost the tourism industry and it will also be implemented in stages in other locations,” she said, adding that vaccinations for islanders would be speeded up to achieve herd immunity as quickly as possible. The location of other bubbles is yet to be announced.
Qatar Airways’s vice-president for sales for Southeast Asia and South Asia, Jared Lee, is keen for the Doha to Langkawi route to open up, although doing so “hinges on local immigration rules on quarantine as well as the local pandemic situation”. The route had operated via Penang until the onset of the pandemic.
“Langkawi was a popular holiday destination in our network prior to COVID-19, and we saw positive inbound traffic from Europe and the Middle East [after the route opened in October 2019],” Lee told Salaam Gateway.
“We had actually planned to increase the frequency to daily soon after it was launched.”
Travel bubbles have been part of the approach Qatar Airways has taken to revive routes to some of its destinations.
The best known travel bubble is between Australia and New Zealand, which opened in April, but it is due to close this week because of new COVID-19 cases in Australia.
Singapore and Hong Kong have been trying to settle on their own since late last year but this has been postponed several times, most recently in May, due to surging cases in one or the other city.
Qatar Airways began branding Travel Bubble Holidays earlier this year to resorts in the Maldives, and will resume flights to Phuket once the Thai island opens its own travel bubble to fully-vaccinated international tourists later this week.
“We do see travel bubbles as a key step to the recovery of global tourism. We are positive that they will aid in the recovery of global tourism,” said Lee
Nevertheless, even if vaccination is done apace in Langkawi, it would be impossible for the Malaysian government to practically open up a travel bubble, according to travel expert Hannah Pearson.
“The fly in the ointment is how this will jive with the national recovery plan the prime minister announced recently,” said the founder of Pear Anderson, a consultancy specialising in the Southeast Asian and Muslim tourism industry.
Prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced, also on June 15, the government’s plan for how Malaysia would emerge from the COVID-19 crisis over four progressive stages. Each stage has criteria that must be met, such as maximum case levels and vaccination rates.
“Only at stage four are we going to see interstate and domestic travel. I think it would be a very tough sell for the PM to say before that, domestically, you guys on the mainland are not allowed to do domestic travel, but we’re going to allow a bunch of people from Qatar to fly into Langkawi before that happens,” said Pearson.
The government currently estimates that the fourth stage will only be met by November at the earliest, given the current rate of infections and vaccinations.
“In terms of timing, if the travel bubble even took place, I don’t think it could happen until they have started to reopen interstate travel,” she added.
The Phuket “sandbox” is being seen as a well-conceived model for travel bubbles in the region when it opens on July 1.
Done differently than a typical travel bubble, vaccinated visitors are allowed to “quarantine” on the island for 14 days before they are allowed to move on to other parts of Thailand.
“The Tourism Authority of Thailand chose Phuket to start off with precisely because it is an island and they can control who’s coming in and who’s leaving,” said Pearson.
“If a travel bubble falls through, you wipe out that source market. But with Phuket, it’s a little bit more flexible, because if a source country has a resurgence in cases and you shut off their access, at least you have markets from other countries that are still coming in.”
MALAYSIA TOURISM LOSSES
Malaysia's tourism industry suffered an estimated 100 billion ringgit ($24 billion) in losses in 2020, according to official figures, and more than 40% of travel agencies have closed shop.
Faeez Fadhlillah, chief executive of Tripfez, a portal for Muslim-friendly travel, says tourism in Langkawi has been “as good as dead” since a ban on interstate travel was introduced in January.
Occupancy there is below 10%, according to data released by the Malaysian Hotel Association, and around two dozen hotels and many more homestays have already closed and are likely to shutter permanently.
“The announcement by the minister certainly provides the necessary hope to revitalise the tourism industry in Langkawi and it is expected that once it does open, domestic travel would be the first to boom, with people itching to travel again enjoying the sun, dining out, shopping and relaxing on a white sandy beach,” Faeez told Salaam Gateway.
He believes a travel bubble would have the potential to be a “game-changer” if only it could be executed sooner rather than later, but this is unlikely because of the national recovery plan and sluggish vaccination rates in Kedah, which is Langkawi’s home state.
Vaccine minister Khairy Jamaluddin recently noted that Kedah is only expected to reach 50% of the vaccinated population towards mid-September. Full vaccination, which would be needed for a travel bubble, would only come towards the end of the year.
“While certainly, the plans do come as good news after almost 18 months of Langkawi being closed, they should have come sooner to revive the travel industry,” Faeez told Salaam Gateway.
“Countries that are opening up, like Thailand, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and South Korea, would certainly gobble up all the long haul tourists, leaving only the crumbs to the likes of Langkawi which would only open in September at the earliest.”
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