Malaysia struggles to shake Covid-19 stigma as Asean restarts tourism

Song Ewe Jurn has not seen his frail grandmother in Singapore for over two years. Before Covid-19 shut the border in March 2020, the architect was one of thousands of Malaysians who frequently travelled to the island city-state on a tourist visa.

So when the 38-year-old heard Malaysia’s announcement this month that fully vaccinated citizens would be allowed to travel abroad, coupled with Singapore’s moves to ease travel restrictions, he was “very excited.”

“But when I looked at the approved list of countries, I was so disappointed,” he said.

Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines are beginning to welcome back foreign tourists in phases, even without quarantine. But one country missing from their reopenings so far is one of their closest neighbours – Malaysia.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the region, with over 70% of the total population and almost 95% of adults inoculated to date, Malaysia is still widely deemed “high risk”.

Its average daily caseload of around 7,000 over the last seven days is comparable to the Philippines’ and less than Thailand’s, both countries that have vaccinated smaller proportions of their citizens.

Some in the Malaysian travel industry are hoping the government will do more to make the country’s case, as well as open its own doors soon. Restrictions on interstate and outbound international travel have been lifted for fully vaccinated residents, but Malaysia’s borders remain closed to tourists for now.

Singapore is allowing quarantine-free arrivals from Brunei, Germany, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK and the US, as well as Hong Kong and Macao. A green lane with South Korea is expected to be launched next month.

Singapore and Malaysia did have reciprocal arrangements that allowed some travel between them, but these were suspended after less than a year due to Malaysia’s deadly fourth wave of infections, barring exceptions for cases such as family emergencies. Reopening discussions between the two are reportedly ongoing.

At the outbreak’s peak, Malaysia reported 24,500 new cases on Aug 26. But daily infections continue to trend downward, and active cases have fallen from a peak of 264,000 to below 100,000. Overall, since March 2020, Malaysia has recorded about 2.4 million cases and 28,000 deaths.

Thailand, meanwhile, is set to allow quarantine-free tourism from 10 “low risk” countries, with the full list due out shortly. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has named the UK, Singapore, Germany, China and the US as potential candidates.

The Philippines has opened to China, New Zealand and over 40 other economies with no need to isolate, as long as passengers are vaccinated. Malaysia is not on Manila’s green list.

And Indonesia has opened holiday haven Bali to 19 countries including China, India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some European states, albeit with quarantines.

Malaysian foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah, on a working trip to Indonesia until Wednesday, said both countries are discussing a dedicated bubble for business and essential travellers, before opening further for education, social travel and tourism.

“Both countries can explore ways to connect green destinations in their respective countries to serve as the entry point,” he said during a news conference with his Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi.

Malaysia’s exclusion from the Bali pilot reopening was not mentioned.

The foreign ministry here also declined to comment on Nikkei Asia’s queries.

There are some glimmers of change. AirAsia Aviation Group CEO Bo Lingam told Nikkei Asia that the airline has received approvals to fly from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand’s Phuket and Krabi from Nov 5, under a dedicated travel bubble arrangement.

“Tickets are already on sale,” he said.

Malaysia’s ambassador to Thailand recently said inclusion on the general low-risk list would be up for discussion.

Government in no hurry

According to Tan Kok Liang, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta), the government should use diplomatic channels to persuade neighbouring countries to include Malaysia in their reopenings.

“It appears that the Malaysian government is taking its own time and is in no hurry,” he said.

Tan pointed out that Malaysian travellers have contributed to the tourism industry across Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand.

“Malaysian travellers contribute significantly to international tourism arrivals for Thailand thus it is in the best interest for Thailand to include Malaysia,” he added.

Mohd Khalid Harun, president of the Malaysian Association of Tour Agencies (Mata), said Malaysia should also open its international borders to neighbours’ tourists soon.

“They are our good neighbours and they need Malaysians too,” Khalid said.

Khalid added that Malaysia could accelerate progress by recognising vaccine certificates of neighbouring countries and allowing fully vaccinated foreign tourists, with other economies likely to follow suit.

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