COVID: Malaysia's tourism sector faces collapse | DW's Inflight-Entertainment and travel distribution. | DW | 06.12.2021
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COVID: Malaysia's tourism sector faces collapse

Since the beginning of the pandemic, tourism in the Southeast Asian country has plummeted. The consequences are dramatic for those who work in the industry.

Tourists walk on Cenang beach on the island of Langkawi.

The Malaysian economy is suffering from lack of tourists

Kira, who prefers to not disclose her full name, usually rents out vacation homes in Kuala Lumpur. Before COVID-19 it was a thriving business. After all, her home country is not only known for its rainforests, gorgeous beaches and picturesque islands — travelers have long been drawn to its capital, Kuala Lumpur. Among the city's most popular attractions are the famous 451-meter-high (1230 ft.) Petronas Twin Towers.

An areal view of Kuala Lumpur with many skyscrapers.

Before the pandemic, many tourists visited Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur

But instead of the hoped-for influx of tourists, the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic came in 2019. Since then, things have looked rather bleak for Kira, as well as for many of the 3.5 million people in Malaysia who depend on the tourism industry. "I have hardly any bookings and when I do, it's only for a few days. These are mostly business people or some locals who might be visiting family in town," she tells DW. Before the pandemic, her apartments were always fully booked. More than a year ago, the 28-year-old had to move back in with her parents to avoid paying rent.

Twin towers and other sky scrapers.

The Petronas Twin Towers are one of the main attractions of Kuala Lumpur

Supporting women

Young women like Kira in particular are suffering from the impacts of the pandemic in the Muslim country, according to the Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri. This is also evidenced by the 2020 analysis by the International Labor Organization, which shows that more female workers in the tourism sector have lost their jobs worldwide than men.

In Malaysia, the number of women working in the tourism industry dropped by more than 2% to 48.3% in 2020, compared to 50.3% in 2019, and the Malaysian government has announced that the 2022 gender-balanced budget will benefit women in tourism equally. To ensure that the tourism industry will eventually recover and be additionally improved, the Malaysian government intends to continue implementing support measures in the future.

"The umbrella framework for this is Malaysia's National Tourism Policy 2020-2030, which is based on the three pillars: Competitiveness, Inclusion and Sustainability," Nancy said.

A long beach on a peninsula on the island of Lagkawi.

Langkawi is one of Malaysia's most popular islands with tourists

The Langkawi pilot project 

On November 15, the Malaysian government opened the popular vacation island of Langkawi to fully vaccinated international tourists without the need to quarantine. It was the first destination in Malaysia to do so. Tourism Malaysia is also working with international airlines to restore Malaysia's long-dormant connections. Malaysia Airlines currently flies twice weekly from London to Kuala Lumpur until the end of December 2021. The frequency is scheduled to increase to five times weekly between January and March 2022.

A man sips a drink in a pool overlooking the ocean.

Those relying on the tourism industry in Malaysia hope for the return of foreign tourists

Although tourism on the island is slowly coming back to life — resorts, hotels, bars and restaurants are open again — the rush of international tourists has so far failed to materialize, despite the well-intentioned measures. There are few tourists to be seen in Kuala Lumpur, but there are foreigners living in the city for work. For locals working in the tourism sector on the Malaysian vacation island, it's a drop in the ocean.

Shaun (not his real name) works for a businessman who rents out small villas on Langkawi to tourists. For the past 1.5 years, however, virtually nothing has been happening here either. Many businesses, especially small ones, have had to close. Shaun is glad that his boss has taken money in hand and used the time of the lull to carry out renovation work, he tells us.

But now, tourists must finally come again, otherwise, things will look bad, the young man says. Many of his friends have lost their jobs and have to see how they can make ends meet. Shaun and other affected people are now hoping for the announced government measure.

A photo of Cenang beach on the island of Langkawi at sunset.

The Malaysian government has taken steps to encourage tourists to return in 2022

Hoping for foreign tourists

The Southeast Asian country plans to reopen its borders to international visitors starting January 1 in a bid to revive its ailing tourism sector. While the country has gradually reopened its economy in the face of declining COVID-19 cases, the tourism industry is simply recovering too slowly without foreign visitors, according to National Recovery Council Chairman Muhyiddin Yassin. In Malaysia, 94.9% of adults are already fully vaccinated, based on statistical surveys. It is hoped that the next wave of the virus will not occur after the borders have been opened and that things will finally start to look up again. Malaysia is currently represented at all tourism trade fairs  — especially in Europe — in order to promote itself. Yet difficult times may be ahead.

An areal view of buildings on the edge of the water in Langkawi.

Langkawi became the first destination in Malaysia where vaccinated tourists didn't have to quarantine

New COVID-19 variant poses risks to tourism

Malaysia has temporarily banned entry from countries that have recorded cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant or are considered high risk, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on December 1. The Southeast Asian nation joins countries around the world in doing so. If it stays that way and the borders are not opened soon as planned, experts say Malaysia's tourism industry faces a complete collapse from which the country would likely struggle to recover.

Nevertheless, those affected are not giving up hope and remain true to their motto "Malaysia Boleh!" which, loosely translated, means something like "Malaysia can do it." But since the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, this phrase has acquired an almost sarcastic edge. 

This article was originally written in German. 

EINSCHRÄNKUNG DW Personenfoto | Corporate Communications | Carla Hagemann

Carla Hagemann

Corporate Spokesperson and Head of Corporate Communications


T +49.228.429.2042