Another four years for tourism to recover
Published on: Sunday, November 08, 2020
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COMPANIES granted “Outbound” licence by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (Motac) are permitted to organise and sell tours to overseas. Interestingly, outbound customers can also consist of foreign visitors and expatriates in Malaysia, including family members. Businesses with “Inbound” licence are allowed to sell or provide travel services within the country. 

Outbound tour operators may make bespoke arrangements for individuals, couples, families or small groups travelling together; or plan a series of group tours with scheduled departures and take bookings from members of the public wishing to join escorted tours; or organise incentive tours to overseas for large groups of high-achievers given all-expenses paid trips as reward.

Visitors that make reservations in advance before their arrival to Malaysia are inbound tourists, and they may book directly with local inbound tour operators or through overseas outbound tour operators. A portion of services provided by inbound tour operators are sold locally and customers for domestic tours may also include foreign tourists, expatriates and family members.

Most inbound tour companies operate a small fleet of tourism vehicles such as tour vans and excursion buses licensed under “Bas Persiaran”, and charter from each other when more are required for ad hoc transfers or sightseeing tours. Only a few tour companies operate tour cars licensed under “Teksi Mewah”, as passenger vans are cheaper and can carry more passengers.

Car rental companies that offer self-drive vehicles are also licensed under “Inbound” but this business is a different kettle of fish. Staff must be specially trained as the motor insurance does not cover many risks such as customers gone missing with rented vehicles. Also, substantial capital is needed to purchase and operate a fleet size of several hundred or thousand vehicles.

When tour or travel agent is used as a technical term, it must be applied correctly. For example, agents are persons acting on behalf of principals such as insurance agents for insurance companies. Therefore, it would be incorrect to label big tour operators as tour agents as only smaller tour companies or travel agencies act as tour agents for large tour wholesalers.

Full-fledged travel agencies are members of International Air Transport Association and make flight, accommodation, and other travel arrangements, mostly for large corporate clients. They do not organise tours as they are licensed under “Travel Agency Business”, formerly known as “Ticketing”. Travel agent is a generic term for tour professionals, operators and travel agencies.

Tour leaders are appointed by outbound tour operators to escort tour groups to visit one or more overseas destinations, assist in check-ins at airports and hotels, and to ensure that all pre-arranged services are provided satisfactorily to all tour members. They are not licensed and impractical to do so, as any licence issued is only recognised or required by the home country.

Fulltime tour leaders like to call themselves tour managers, a title also used by colleagues working in the office administration, or tour directors that sound more grandiose and similar to funeral directors, a highly stable and lucrative profession, with or without Covid-19 pandemic.

The best tour leaders in pre-internet era before the mid-1990s were in a different league of their own and many that specialised in Europe knew the continent like the back of their hands, as they also acted as tour guide while the same tour bus traversed several countries. They received enormous commission from shops and generous tipping from customers at the end of the tour.

Tour guides are called tourist guides in Malaysia and their number is large. In September, Minister Dato’ Sri Hajah Nancy Shukri disclosed that 8,325 of the 17,003 tourist guides registered with Motac received Prihatin assistance from the Federal Government, as movement and border controls have halted almost all domestic and foreign groups travelling in tour buses.

Many non-practising tourist guides hang on to their hard-earned licence after spending valuable time and money to obtain it. One must complete a part-time four to six months course, pass a written exam and three practical tests that include being grilled in an interview, describe a series of slides shown on the screen and comment on the passing scenery on board a moving tour bus.

From 1990 to 2000, I was an examiner for the practical tests. On average, half of the candidates failed as tourist guide courses then were much shorter, ranging from two weeks to two months, and were largely lecture-based with little or no time for practical training or rehearsal. This changed when the Malaysian Skills Certificate’s requirements were incorporated into training.

I was an English-speaking tourist guide in the 1970s and my passengers were mostly from Australia and the United States. I could not afford to buy a car as Caucasians tourists hardly shop whereas my colleagues bought bungalows, thanks to huge shopping commissions from goldsmiths, as Japanese tourists bought gold jewellery at prices much cheaper than in Japan.

In recent years, tour operators, leaders and guides, and stores throughout the world have made fortunes from Chinese tourists because they splurged on shopping. But the world has changed since the pandemic and many things will not continue as before even after vaccines and effective cures for Covid-19 are found. Everyone will have to reset and deal with a new normal.

Mass travel will not resume as many airlines have gone bust or operating with skeleton fleet and charging high fares, which are unaffordable to many who have lesser or no income, having lost jobs or businesses. Global air travel would not recover until 2024 and our Economic Action Council had predicted that it will take four years for tourism sector to recover in Malaysia.

Tourism businesses that have taken new loans to survive is like throwing good money after the bad and end up with more debts. The six months moratorium on loan repayments from April to September was announced in March when there was hope that the pandemic would blow over in a matter of months and tourism will begin its recovery from year end or early next year.

Like many other businesses and jobs, prospects are indeed grim for tour operators, leaders and guides. Meanwhile, it is better to stop any financial bleeding, take a strategic retreat and venture into other fields. Offering saleable tourism products is only one of the challenges as the market will continuously be disrupted by new technology, pandemics, terrorism and armed conflicts.

YS Chan


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