Businesses in Malaysia’s prime holiday destination, Langkawi, are gearing up to welcome the return of tourists this week, as the country takes an early step towards recovery from a devastating coronavirus crisis. Its Indonesian counterpart Bali, meanwhile, is contemplating an uptick in business, with social restrictions having been eased on Monday, and even the return of foreign visitors.
A cluster of 99 islands in the Strait of Malacca, Langkawi will reopen from September 16 to fully vaccinated travellers as part of a domestic tourism bubble, with strict protocols in place to thwart the spread of the coronavirus.
Restaurant owner Esther Lee said she was excited the bubble was finally being launched.
“Finally we can welcome customers and this is actually our main source of income to actually survive,” she said. “We have staff under us, we have overhead costs to bear so we definitely need dining customers.”
The plan is similar to that introduced in Thailand, which started with the July reopening of Phuket, 220km (137 miles) north of Langkawi, to vaccinated foreign tourists. Malaysia has yet to invite foreign tourists to return.
Like Phuket, Langkawi, known for its beaches, geoparks, bird life and rock formations , is not expecting huge numbers initially, with 400,000 visitors targeted by the end of the year and estimated revenues of 165 million ringgit (US$40 million).
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“We still do not want congestion even though we need a high number,” said Tuan Nasaruddin Abdul Muttalib, head of the Langkawi development authority. “What is important is that we can control the tourists to ensure their compliance.”
Malaysia has recorded 2 million coronavirus cases overall among its 32 million population, one of Asia’s highest per-capita infection rates, with more than 20,000 deaths. Its vaccination programme has progressed faster than those of its neighbours, with more than half the population inoculated.
“A big sigh of relief, the team is ready, everybody is very happy to welcome … our local tourists again,” said Arnaud Girodon, general manager of the luxury Datai Langkawi resort. “We can’t wait to see them back.”
The once thriving holiday hotspot of Bali has been eerily quiet amid Indonesia’s Covid-19 outbreak – one of the worst in Asia – with hotels, restaurants and beaches closed. But cases in the Southeast Asian nation have declined significantly in the past month after peaking in mid-July. Senior government ministers said that restrictions would be downgraded in Bali to allow for some tourist destinations to be opened and cinemas to operate at 50 per cent capacity.
“Our hope is the virus spread can be kept under control, so that we can reach an 80 per cent to 90 per cent vaccination rate and then we can start to open for international tourists,” said Diah Anggraini, general manager of the Grand Inna Kuta hotel. “The response from local tourists has been very good so far. We see they are starting to have more confidence about travelling.”
Indonesia’s tourism minister Sandiaga Uno said this week his ministry was drafting plans for reopening to foreign tourists, although the timing had not been finalised. He recently flagged the possibility of applying the “Phuket Sandbox ” approach to Bali, which would allow a limited number of fully vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries to visit without the need to quarantine.
Speaking at an online press conference on Tuesday, Sandiaga said tourism areas should reach vaccination rates of 70 per cent before reopening, and also suggested regional collaboration to form a Phuket, Langkawi and Bali tourism “triangle”.
More than 66 per cent of people on Bali are fully vaccinated, according to data from the country’s health ministry, and locals whose livelihoods have taken a hit during the pandemic are keen for the reopening to go ahead.
“I hope the local government here can keep negotiating with the central government to let Bali stay open,” said 55-year-old Bali resident Made Danendra, “so that all my relatives, including my kids, brothers and sisters, can go back to work.”
Vietnam is also looking at opening up tourist island Phu Quoc to travel bubbles.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.