The travel bug is back, and it’s biting harder than ever.
People are not just rushing to take that long-awaited trip but are even seeking out the more offbeat routines … swimming in shark infested waters, death slides and close encounters of the eerie kind.
A recent report by online travel company Tripadvisor shows how desperate people are to just pack a bag and take the next flight out. It is by far more contagious than the infection that put a halt to travel two years ago.
Tripadvisor reported travellers searching “like never before” on its website. Beaches are a hit, with more than 4.8 million searches this year, followed by resorts with 3.2 million and spas with 1.7 million.
More interestingly, there were 1,636 bookings for shark-diving, 16,563 for ziplining tours and 47,015 tickets for ghost and vampire tours.
The rapid resumption of flights and rising hotel and homestay occupancy rates are testament to the return of the thirst for travel.
According to a November report from the World Tourism Organisation, a UN specialised agency, international tourism is on track to reach 65% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year.
It estimated that about 700 million tourists travelled internationally from January to September, which was more than double that recorded for the same period in 2021.
Europe leads the rebound, seeing 477 million international arrivals up till September this year, accounting for 68% of the world total.
In Asia and the Pacific, arrivals more than tripled in the first nine months of 2022 compared with the same period of 2021. However, tight Covid-19 measures that kept China closed also curtailed some of the momentum. The international arrivals this year was 83% below the 2019 level.
Just like everywhere else, tourist arrivals in Malaysia are expected to recover to, or exceed, pre-Covid-19 levels only in 2024. The expected recession in 2023 will dampen the spirit to explore new grounds and reach new horizons.
Tourism is a key sector in the Malaysian economy. The industry generated RM197.9 billion in gross value added (GVA), accounting for 12.8% of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, according to data from the Department of Statistics Malaysia.
Despite such a heavy dependence on the tourist dollar, Malaysia has yet to make that quantum leap into becoming a favoured destination for travellers.
The numbers tell the tale, and the story is uninspiring for Malaysia. In the decade-and-a-half to 2021, there has barely been any improvement in tourist arrivals. Over this 15-year period, Malaysia’s best year was 2014, when 27.44 million visitors arrived in the country.
The contrast with next-door neighbour Thailand is significant. From 2014 to 2019, Malaysia welcomed an average of 25 million to 28 million visitors each year. In Thailand, it rose annually from 24 million in 2014 to 39 million in 2019.
Perhaps we are not aiming high enough. For instance, Malaysia’s target for 2023 is 15 million arrivals, compared with 18 million for the Thais.
Newly-minted tourism minister Tiong King Sing will have to introduce an entirely new strategy to make Malaysia the go-to place for those seeking a new experience.
He would do well to look north for inspiration.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
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