Will Malaysia Extend Travel Bubbles After Langkawi Covid Case

Over 83% of the official adult population have been fully vaccinated and hospitalisation rates have been dropping, leaving much room for travelling hopes and dreams.

The endemic phase places greater faith in vaccination and people’s personal responsibilities.

Will Malaysia Extend Travel Bubbles After Langkawi Covid Case

With a total of 2 million Covid-19 cases, 25,000 deaths, millions of people suffering in poverty, Malaysians could no doubt breathe a sigh of relief when economic and social sectors have started opening up, slowly, amidst rising vaccination rates in the nation. We’ve all been hoping for better days ahead, months into the pandemic itself. September is a low-key month for new possibilities especially with the reopening of the Malaysian travel bubble — starting with Langkawi! 

Let’s have a look at the statistics first. Over 83% of the official adult population have been fully vaccinated and hospitalisation rates have been dropping, leaving much room for travelling hopes and dreams. The inner travel bugs within the Malaysian demographic have definitely been overjoyed with the famous duty-free shopping destination, Langkawi’s reopening to those who have been fully vaccinated. This risky decision has been laminated with the dubious fact that SOPs should be in full practice for tourists. This was done in an effort to limit transmission from undetected carriers. Examples of the SOPs that have taken place in the midst of the reopening include, pre-departure testing which has actually identified a small number of infected intending to travel, with other tourism destinations using this to advance a swift and broad reopening. 

Some other tourist destinations that the government intends to reopen include Melaka, Genting Highlands, Tioman and Sabah. This comes to light as Prime Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaacob sets his sights on an ASEAN-China arrangement. This has indeed set the hopes of Malaysians up high and the question now is;  where do travel bubbles like Langkawi fit in and will the country see more, as it reaches an endemic phase?

What comes to your mind when the word “travel” comes about?

Well, for many, it would involve lush forests, blue skies, and breezy beaches, but paradise holidays, as advertised in tourism advertisements, only represent a drop in the economic ocean for the country. Meaning, the tourism bubble needs more than just island bubbles and tropical holidays to survive. Attempts to recover the RM136 billion in lost tourism revenue last year need more outreach. Pre-pandemic last year, the proportion of domestic leisure trips was only around 10% with visits involving loved ones and shopping commanding over a ¾ share. 

Apparently, after domestic travel recommenced in mid-2020, Tourism Malaysia conducted a survey and as a result, they found safety concerns and financial constraints as the main barriers to non-essential travel. And even this was before the pandemic worsened. The vaccination process might provide some form of reassurance topped up with the pent-up desire of Malaysias far and wide but the main issue at hand is the affordability of domestic travelling. For survivors of Covid-19, the long-lasting trauma might make them take a while before venturing out in the open. Overall, tourism contributes around 16% of gross value added and 23% of employment but the question is, would people bravely travel after a dire period of time?

Experimenting With Familiar Territory

Malaysia is definitely not the first country that has reopened the travel bubble to the general public — Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand have all done so but at a cost. Shortly after reopening, there have been escalating outbreaks. Singapore is trying to recover in terms of the tourism industry by creating vaccinated, quarantine-free travel lanes with Brunei and Germany requiring testing and tracing. Thailand targets long-stay international travellers willing to serve 14 days’ quarantine in localised luxury. As an added precaution, travellers must be fully vaccinated and comply with testing and tracing requirements before and after entry, but may ultimately travel onwards within Thailand. The support was, however, not welcomed as concerns regarding administration, testing costs and returning Thais depressing numbers were raised. But nevertheless, currently, Bangkok recently announced further plans to liberalise international travel with holiday spots prioritised. Now, Malaysia has high hopes for a broader reopening along with the high vaccination rates and SOP adherence. 


Forming A Travel Triage

While there has been a great push to reopen travel from all around the world Southeast Asia decided on prioritising remote tourism hubs for reopening. These locations were the most tourism-dependent locales with the greatest political and economic pressure to reopen while also catering to relatively low-infection risk recreational activities. The government will most likely look at a broader reopening as vaccination rates reach targets, rather than prioritise localised relaxing of rules. 

Coming back to Malaysia, the travel bubble has opened as national hospital and intensive care bed overcapacity eases, but most freed capacity is in Kuala Lumpur. Capacities in Kedah and Penang – of most relevance to Langkawi – were still severely stretched as of early September. The opening of tourist destinations preceded the wider reopening of domestic travel because targeted tourism liberalisation benefits a very small select group of travellers moving around for non-essential reasons. This will benefit more Malaysians. But, opening domestic tourism bubbles will go against the transition to endemic living. 

During the pandemic phase, the government has emphasised the determination of restrictions and SOPs. The endemic phase places greater faith in vaccination and people’s personal responsibilities. Nevertheless, when seeking to optimise endemic phase travel, there remain strong arguments to triage around purpose (family reunion, business, long-stay in a single location) rather than geography where restrictions remain necessary.

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