Coffee Break: Alas, revenge travel will have to wait…

This article first appeared in Capital, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 20, 2022 - June 26, 2022.
Coffee Break: Alas, revenge travel will have to wait…
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Like many who were restless from being cooped up indoors over the last two years, I couldn’t wait to take my first proper post-Covid-19-lockdown vacation. Throughout the long lockdowns, I had fantasised about far-flung, exotic beachside getaways. Sardinia. Santorini. Maui.

But the universe conspired to be a killjoy, making everything — flights, food and accommodation — that much more expensive than in pre-pandemic times. Damn you, inflation!

I ended up in Langkawi, along with thousands of other holiday-deprived white-collar Malaysians — many of whom, I suspect, like me, decided to put on hold their more ambitious “revenge travel” plans and go local. That teensy sense of discomfort about the rising-cost situation and the relatively weak ringgit was too strong to ignore.

Not that Langkawi was particularly cheap — although it can be, if you’re not looking for frills.

My Firefly flight out of Subang cost at least twice what I used to pay pre-pandemic.

The fancy beachfront hotel my friends and I stayed at was several hundred ringgit more expensive than it was just weeks earlier, in part, because of high demand.

Even duty-free alcohol and chocolates — part of Langkawi’s charm — seemed a tad pricier than I remembered.

A chat with a few of the friendly hotel staff revealed that even higher rates were in the pipeline as the hotel aimed to reclaim its target market of foreign tourists.

Local tourists, enticed by lower-than-usual rates, had held up the hotel during the difficult times, for which the staff were thankful as it helped them keep their jobs. But Malaysians are also a demanding and difficult lot, they confided. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that, given they were talking to Malaysians!

All in, what we splashed out on that trip was similar to what would have been spent in popular regional destinations like Bali or Phuket during pre-pandemic times. Still, there were no regrets. Though crowded, Langkawi was lovely.

Which brings me to my point. Despite the reopening of international borders on April 1, foreign tourists are not back with a vengeance, not even close. The tourism sector is still struggling to get back on its feet and needs to rely longer on domestic tourists to carry it through.

I think, tourist spots and top hotels would do well to cash in on the fact and work out a win-win situation for all. For sure, rates will need to go up from the lows of the pandemic, but not to the extent that they are out of reach of the domestic traveller.

Invest in improving your buildings and rooms, your landscaping, your service, maybe even your attitude. Don’t treat us as second class.

Yes, our T20 (top 20% income group), in particular, are still going to be jetting off to London and the usual holiday playgrounds. But I think it’s fair to say that most Malaysians are going to be holidaying locally, if not regionally, for some time to come.

Higher prices, especially for food, and rising interest rates (read: higher loan repayments) will make sure of that. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one to cringe at the implications of the US Federal Reserve’s 75-basis-point rate hike last week — the largest in almost 30 years — to quell surging inflation.

The Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, or Matta, was recently reported to have said that it expects the number of foreign tourist arrivals to Malaysia to hit five million by year end. This is still a pittance compared with the 26.1 million arrivals we had in pre-pandemic 2019.

Since Malaysia reopened its international borders, we’ve had about one million come in, mostly from Singapore.

For as long as the big-spending tourists from mainland China and the Middle East are not back yet, you’re stuck a bit longer with us who “cuti-cuti Malaysia”. So, why not make it worth both our whiles? It can only be to your benefit.

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