Sabah tourism starts to feel coronavirus epidemic impact
Published on: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
By: Larry Ralon
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KOTA KINABALU: The scale and size of Chinese tourist cancellations to Sabah will be felt from this week as the Chinese Government on Monday stopped all its citizens from Wuhan and Hubei from travelling abroad in the wake of the Coronavirus epidemic.

Malaysia also imposed a temporary ban on Chinese nationals arriving from Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province Monday. The death toll in China, reached 81.

Malaysia has reported four confirmed cases of the virus, which can cause pneumonia. All four cases involve tourists from Wuhan. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei.

 Hence, Sabah may not be seeing Chinese tourists coming in such large numbers after Monday (yesterday), said Sabah Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Satta) President Datuk Seri Winston Liaw. Chinese tourists account for 45 per cent of arrivals in Sabah. Chinese tourists account for 45 per cent of arrivals in Sabah.  

 “Yesterday (Sunday) one charter flight from a place in China cancelled at the last minute.   It is not the airline that cancelled it, but the travel agent after it received instructions from the Chinese Government saying the Chinese tourists cannot get on board the flight to Sabah. 

“Another two groups, excluding the one yesterday, also cancelled their travel to Sabah...so just from one destination in China we already have 480 PAXs cancelled,” he said.   

Based on the 2019 tourist arrivals, 600,000 Chinese nationals came to Sabah and averaged about 50,000 every month.

“With an estimated RM2,000 per visit, we will lose RM100 million a month,” he said.

 Going by the previous SARS experience, Liaw believed the situation would not only affect the Chinese New Year period as “the Chinese Government only quarantined for 14 days and after that, if things gets better the Chinese Government might relax a bit. 

 “But if things do not improve, then the Chinese Government might continue its enforcement (lockdown) and we forsee at least for one month or two Chinese tourists will not be going out of their country. This will not only affect Sabah, or Malaysia but the whole world,” he said, and hoped the Government can step in and help the industry. 

“Because the industry players have so much commitments. So we may need the Government to come in during this very critical period, to help ease the difficulty of the agents,” he said.        

 On how long the tourism industry may take to recover from the impact, Liaw said it depends on how quick the coronavirus can be tackled.

“But based on the previous SARS outbreak, it would take at least four to five months after the coronavirus has been eliminated...but how long will it take until this is possible?” he told a press conference held jointly with the Malaysian Chinese Tourism Association (MCTA).   

 “Starting Jan. 22, the Chinese Government policy changed every half a day. Members of both MCTA and Satta have quite a number of groups travelling from Sabah to China where some of them have already left Sabah on Jan. 21, 22, 23 and 24. 

“The problems they (tour members) faced in China  are  exceptional. We never faced such in my 30 years in this industry. 

“What happened in China is all the attraction points mentioned in our itinerary were closed. Like if you go to Beijing, you will go to the Great Wall, Forbidden City and so on. But all these places are closed...not only one but the whole of China closed, so what are they going to do there…nothing. 

 “Not only that. The group of restaurants in China affiliated with our travel agent were also closed. They were closed since Jan 23...so even though we have hundreds of tour members in China, the travel agents don’t know where to bring them. 

“So many of them (tour members) requested to come back early. Because they also saw it (the coronavirus outbreak) in the Chinese national television and through other media platform. They are also scared,” he said.

 He said Satta and MCTA travel agents have communicated with the airlines to try to arrange flights for those who want to come back early, while for those who haven’t departed from Sabah yet, they will persuade them not to go and cancel the tour.  

“We are grateful airline companies giving us 100 per cent cooperation in solving this problem. Because different airlines have their very own policy, where some can refund and some can defer where tickets can be used in the future. 

“The only thing now is the charter flight. I have already sought assistance in contacting the charterers who have fully paid the airlines. So it is up to them (charterers) whether to fully refund us (because charter flights cannot be deferred unlike the scheduled airlines). 

 “We are still waiting from the charterers on how much we can refund. There is also a problem with the accommodation (hotels) and transport providers, as these were all pre-committed. 

“We are in the midst of negotiation with the China side. We will try our very best to fight for maximum refund. 

“The situation not only affected Malaysia but worldwide. So we hope that our tour members understand. We are trying our best to help them and to help us make things a win-win. 

“If you say the travel agents absorb everything, I think none of the travel agents would be able to do so...we try our very best to fight for them,” he said. 

In the case of inbound tour/travel, Liaw said there are even more commitments. 

“Previously, about 17 years ago, during the SARS outbreak,  Sabah tourism wasn’t so well known so the effect on inbound tourism was quite minimal. But today, our inbound has grown very fast and many businessmen have invested in resorts, transportation, ferries, hotels and so on. 

 “We would like to ask for all to compromise, not to let any member rugi (lose) so much. Satta and MCTA members hopes that perhaps the hotels can refund or defer the commitment for future use. (But) It is up to the individual hotel on what they can do. 

“We would like the Government to help us out in resolving the problems relating to the entrance fees, like to the islands which are under Sabah Parks. Satta and MCTA will write to all the tourism players concerned and the Tourism Ministry to see how the problems can be resolved...how the Government can come in to help all the industry players overcome this,” he said. 



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