On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Nearest neighbours first

IT’S time for Malaysia to kickstart its economy since we’ve succeeded in flattening the Covid-19 pandemic curve, and as we gear up for the reopening of more businesses, travelling must surely be one of them.

One of the worst affected sectors since the outbreak of the virus must be tourism, travel and hospitality. So, we need to keep these businesses afloat because travelling is essential for businessmen, and the rest of the workforce.

For a start, we hope interstate travel will resume soon with the conditional movement control order (CMCO) ending next week.

The ball should get rolling with domestic air travel, so local tourism can be revived.

Many countries in Europe have already begun cross-border arrangements.

It goes by different names, such as travel bubble, travel corridors and air bridges, but essentially means the same thing – to lift the ban on border closures.

The bubble or corridors denote a safe or protected perimeter between two travel destinations, countries or states already declared green zones and ready to receive tourists, which is expected to help the tourism sector recover.

According to Channel News Asia, there are already bubbles being mooted between Australia and New Zealand, and between South Korea and 10 territories in China.

“In Europe, a safety bubble has been proposed between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the world kickstarts efforts to reopen the tourism sector. This is a much-needed injection for European tourists who have already given up on their summer holidays.

“In Penang, the state government had also proposed to implement the travel bubble approach between states declared as green zones to help the domestic tourism sector recover. The concept is designed to resume travel activities and restart tourism industries while adapting to the new normal,” it said.

That means the 14-day quarantine requirement from both sides would need waiving.

Perhaps, these health SOPs can be replaced with a Covid-19 test certificate no less than five days old, as a travel requirement.

So long as they have the necessary documentation from their companies or partners supporting their travel, business people should also be prioritised.

Of course, standard social distancing procedures should be installed, including the requirement for masks and sterilisers, and avoiding congestion at security clearance at boarding gates.

Relevant authorities, including the immigration and customs, should also review their operating procedures to allow effective but smooth processing.

Domestic interstate air travel will be a good warm up for these officers before we reopen for international travel. The government should consider opening borders between Malaysia and Singapore, and Malaysia and Thailand, soon, because these nations have the virus under control.

It should also consider allowing travels between Sabah and Tarakan, Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side as well as Penang and Medan, Indonesia. Sarawak should also be ready to accommodate tourists from Brunei, which has a low record of infection.

In the case of Singapore, the virus infection spikes may seem steep, but that’s only because of immigrant workers living in dormitories. The rest of Singapore has mainly remained unaffected.

Singaporeans are the biggest foreign revenue contributors to our tourism industry.

According to Tourism Malaysia, for 2019, tourist receipts grew 6.8% year-on-year (y-o-y) to RM41.69bil during the first half of the year (1H19), compared with RM39bil in the corresponding period the previous year.

In a statement, Tourism Malaysia said the rise in spending came on the back of a 4.9% growth in the number of tourist arrivals to 13.35 million in 1H19, versus 12.73 million in 2018.

The average length of stay (ALOS) rose 0.4 nights to 6.2 nights, from 5.8 nights, while per capita spending climbed 1.9% to RM3,121.6, from RM3,064.7.

Top 10 international tourist arrivals for the first half of 2019 were from Singapore (5,381,566), Indonesia (1,857,864), China (1,558,782), Thailand (990,565), Brunei (627,112), India (354,486), South Korea (323,952), Philippines (210,974), Vietnam (200,314) and Japan (196,561), Tourism Malaysia revealed.

Asean arrivals constituted 70% of total tourist arrivals in 1H19, while the medium-haul market contributed 20.8%, and the long-haul market made up 9.2%, reads a news report.

The highest tourist receipts came from Singapore (RM11.56bil), followed by China (RM7.09bil), Indonesia (RM5.71bil), Thailand (RM1.7bil) and Brunei (RM1.52bil).

Obviously, reopening borders must be gradually and carefully done because Malaysia can’t afford another wave of infections after all that effort.

All the hard work of our front liners, who have put their lives on the line, would come to naught if we’re not careful.

With Visit Malaysia 2020 now postponed, we shouldn’t be caught on our heels as other nations aggressively prepare for tourist arrivals.

Singapore and China have reportedly agreed to launch a “fast lane” to facilitate essential travel for business and official purposes, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement last month.

The arrangement includes having “effective Covid-19 prevent and control measures in place,” which will debut between the six Chinese provinces or municipalities directly under the central government – Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – and Singapore.

“The arrangement will be gradually expanded to the other Chinese provinces and municipalities. Both sides agreed to explore the increase of air links between the two countries for the fast lane,” MFA said.

“Both sides attached great significance to securing the connectivity of production and supply chains and agreed to level up the efficiency of freight linkages and customs clearance, including facilitating the flow of goods such as essential medical supplies and food,” the ministry added.

Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong said on Thursday that the Government is discussing with its foreign counterparts the prospect of setting up travel with countries where the spread of Covid-19 is contained.

It will only be for essential travel, to cater to businesses that require employees to move within the region.

Last month, Thailand’s state tourism body revealed that it plans to rebrand its tourism motto from “Amazing Thailand” to “Amazing Trusted Thailand” in the post Covid-19 era.

The new brand name is aimed at selective markets and destinations within Thailand that guarantee health and safety standards for both tourists and locals.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor, Yuthasak Supasorn told the media that he expects international business to return to Thailand within a few months.

“October is the estimated month that we think tourists will visit Thailand, therefore, all state agencies and the private sectors are working on a proper recovery plan that won’t risk a second wave of Covid-19,” said Yuthasak.

The TAT said it’s formulating a strategy, so foreign tourists from countries removed from the “Disease-Infected Zones for Covid-19” list can visit provinces with no records of infections, or provinces that have not had a new case in the last 28 days, reports Xinhua.

When Thailand talks about reopening to tourists in October, it probably has in mind China tourists, since October is their holiday season, or the so-called Golden Week, during which the republic celebrates its national day.

Thailand also removed China, along with South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, from its list of “dangerous disease zones” from last month because they’ve displayed effective preventive measures and containment of the coronavirus.

It’s time for us to showcase Malaysia as the safest Asean tourism spot, since we have the best narrative. And while our planes rev their engines again and airports bustle into excitement once more, we hope local authorities have prepared our tourist destinations.

So, let’s welcome tourists with our special Malaysian made batik face masks, and other homegrown unique health and safety wares, because there’s no more time to despair.