THE brakes were pulled hard on the travel industry when Covid-19 shook the world.
Flights were cancelled and holidays were shelved as people stayed home to break the chain of infection.
But now, as things gradually recover, there's a ray of hope to revitalise the tourism industry to its former glory.
It's a promising start, with the public welcoming domestic tourism after interstate travel was allowed during the recovery movement control order beginning June 10.
The next step, according to Tourism Malaysia, is for Malaysia to have "travel bubbles" with Covid-19 green zones - a move that will allow two-way traffic of tourists between Malaysia and other safe destinations.
And it is expected to start with Malaysia's neighbouring countries, says Tourism Malaysia directorgeneral Datuk Musa Yusof.
"It might still be a long road ahead of us, as international borders are still closed, but we are beyond grateful for our beloved Malaysians in reviving domestic tourism.
"Looking at the public's enthusiasm, I believe we will be able to reach the light at the end of the tunnel eventually.
"Our next strategy is stimulating cross-border tourism, where we welcome international arrivals from short-haul markets like Asean countries through 'travel bubbles'," he tells Sunday Star.
Previously, Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri had said in reports that such travel bubbles would enable specific flights into certain locations that are Covid-19 green zones or areas with zero active cases.
With this move, travellers could be allowed to and from these destinations to boost tourism.
To prepare for such travel bubbles, Tourism Malaysia, as the ministry's marketing arm, will tap into online travel agents to promote travel voucher packages.
Such packages will target young travellers, free independent travellers as well as the Muslim tourist segment.
"We are also encouraged by the recent agreement between Malaysia and Singapore to implement the Reciprocal Green Lane and Periodic Commuting Arrangement," Musa says.
With the agreement, crossborder travel between Malaysia and Singapore on the Causeway will be allowed from Aug 17, but only for official, business and work purposes.
Malaysia has plenty to do while waiting for the borders to open up for other countries, though. With the pandemic dealing a serious blow to tourism, Tourism Malaysia developed its own remedy - the Recovery Strategy and Action Plan - to aid the industry.
One of the strategies under the plan is to restore confidence in travelling, assuring the public that Malaysia is now safe to travel, says Musa.
"This is done through various actions and initiatives including implementing standard operating procedures (SOPs) that have been set by the authorities and disseminating the latest updates through our official website and social media platforms," he explains.
"Not only that, stepping up in providing the best hygiene and safety is also vital to entice travellers and gain their confidence.
"For example, the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) has recently launched its first hygiene and safety label called "Clean and Safe Malaysia".
"It is a certification programme designed specifically for hotels and resorts to comply with both local regulatory requirements and international standards," Musa highlights.
Tourism Malaysia also plans to maximise resources through collaborations, including with ministries, agencies, and state governments to amplify promotions of niche products like golf, homestays, cycling, angling and diving.
It may take a while more before Malaysians can pack their bags to go to places in the proposed travel bubbles.
So for now, domestic tourism continues to take centre stage as Tourism Malaysia's focus in its short-term recovery strategy.
As such, it will conduct a behavioural survey and analysis to study factors that motivate and influence tourists to travel domestically.
"This will enable us to make projections on demand and then share such data with industry players for them to cater to such needs," says Musa.
Now that interstate travel is allowed and restrictions are further loosened, he says there is a shift in behaviour, with most domestic tourists preferring less crowded places and those away from the city.
But with the current economic uncertainty, industry players have to strive now more than ever in offering attractive packages to allow Malaysians to enjoy an affordable holiday.
Promotions and packages are offered through collaborations with key players such as MAH, Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, Malaysia Airlines, AirAsia, Malindo Air, and many more.
Tourism Malaysia on the other hand acts as an intermediary to ensure that these initiatives and packages offered by industry players are conveyed to Malaysians for them to grab these opportunities.
"We are also working on collaborating with system providers to market tourism products and packages via online apps," Musa adds.
Through its own digital platforms, Tourism Malaysia has also promoted tourist attractions through webinars and live programmes online.
"One of our virtual programmes is the Sembang Santai series, a promotional platform created specially for tour operators, tourist guides and media to share their knowledge and experience at 'off the beaten track' destinations.
"Four sessions have been hosted as of this month, exposing the wonders of Lembah Bujang, Kenyir, Kota Belud, and Selama.
The series will continue with more destinations, including Perlis and Bung Jagoi in Sarawak," explains Musa.
The series has received a positive response, with each session having an average of approximately 5,000 views.
Tourism Malaysia is also actively coordinating Xchange sessions where industry players are welcome to use the agency's platform for their product promotion.
The digital world has also allowed Malaysia to reach out to a global audience despite travel restrictions.
"Many international travel fairs have also opted to go online.
"Recently, Tourism Malaysia joined Pacific Asia Travel Association's first virtual Dream to Travel Festival, a global travel trade event that offers virtual forums, digital showrooms
and live experiences.
"Undeniably, virtual tourism is among the 'new norms' that we have to get used to.
"Although nothing beats face-toface interaction, virtual tourism also serves its advantages, especially during this crisis," Musa notes.
In April, Tourism Malaysia conducted an online survey to gauge Malaysians' views on domestic travel.
Our beautiful islands and sandy beaches are the top attractions that respondents believe will draw tourists to travel to Malaysia.
Out of 13,797 respondents, 76.8% chose islands and beaches as one of their top 10 things that would attract tourists to travel to Malaysia.
This is followed by our delicious local food (72.2%) and value for money as a tourist destination (67.8%).
And while it is a trying time, Malaysia still remains a tourism gem with all its charm and splendour.
Thanking Malaysians for their support, Musa says Tourism Malaysia is overjoyed to see the nation's beaches, resorts, parks, and eateries receiving numerous bookings as businesses resume operations.
"In the midst of it all, I would also like to remind everyone to adhere to the SOPs that have been put in place to continue to curb the spread of Covid-19.
"We have proven that it is possible to rise again from this heart-breaking pandemic, but we now have to prove that it is also possible to fight it altogether and eventually make our nation Covid-19-free," he says.
As for foreigners who wish to visit Malaysia one day, Musa says Malaysia hopes to give them a warm welcome soon.
"Let us together fight the pandemic, wherever we are, to allow the world to heal from this devastating state and return to a world where travelling is no longer just a dream," he adds.