2020 was supposed to be a good year for us. By 1st of January, we already had a business runway that could last us up till Q4. I had a few contracts and projects lined up to be executed, I was looking to hire and I was excited; this was the year that I was supposed to reap some rewards for the effort that I’ve put in for the past few years
Then came Covid-19
It’s a pandemic
Everyone’s stuck at home under the extended Movement Control Order (MCO)
Health professionals and front liners are risking their lives to help keep the situation under control (salute to every single one of them)
The Government just announced a special relief stimulus package to help Malaysians throughout this period of uncertainty. (Although personally I think that the government has done a pretty decent job in designing the relief package, I have doubts about it being sufficient enough to help the tourism industry and overall SMEs tide over this period of uncertainty)
The impact on the tourism industry
The tourism industry – the industry that I am currently in – is one of the industries that got hit the hardest
According to official sources:
- In Jan-20 and Feb-20 alone, total losses of the tourism industry amounted to RM3.37b
- As of March 16, a total of 170,085 hotel rooms worth RM68 million has been cancelled
- Visit Malaysia 2020 has been cancelled
- There are talk that most of the world’s airlines are on the verge of bankruptcy if this continues
But these are just numbers, although the numbers look bad, they don’t do enough to justify the emotional toll that the people in the tourism industry, especially the owners, have to go through
Before I continue, here’s a disclaimer – This post represents my personal view and experiences, it might not accurately represent the overall tourism industry. On top of that, this post is not meant to undermine the hardship and also the sufferings of any other person or business owners in other industries. We are all on the same boat, every one is affected and this is a crisis that we must face together.
The beginning of it all
I remember clearly, on the 24th Jan, right before reunion dinner my phone started to ring. One of my guests were concerned about the situation in Vietnam (coronavirus cases have just started appearing there) and wanted to know her options. After handling the situation, I went back to dinner with an uneasy feeling
True enough, in the days that came, including the first and second days of Chinese New Year, my phone rang non stop with guests that had a few similar questions:
- Is it still safe to go to where I am going?
- Are there any possibilities to postpone my trip?
- Can I cancel my trip?
- Can I get a refund?
As the pandemic was just unfolding during then, I didn’t have accurate answers for all my guests. All that I could say was that we were closely monitoring the situation and would give everyone updates as and when we got them
Few days later, things took a turn from bad to worst – China started to close Wuhan’s borders, followed by sealing off most of its major cities and finally the whole country. Airlines were cancelling flights and amending their T&Cs almost on a daily basis. First wave cases were popping up in different regions in Japan, Korea, Vietnam – all of the favourite countries for Malaysians to visit
Even worst, this happened going into spring – the super peak period for travellers. This is also when some travel agencies need to make enough profit to cover their low seasons (The outbound tourism industry is a very seasonal business)
The change in tone
The tones of our guests started to change from concerned to worried, we started getting questions that are along the lines of:
- Why aren’t my tour groups cancelled?
- Is it possible for me to request for a refund now?
- Why are other people able to postpone and we are unable too?
… and all these were on top of the plethora of fake news and fear mongering going on in the internet sphere
We helped our guests differ / cancel / rearrange their travel arrangements however we can, but we still had to spend hours and hours explaining and answering our guests’ questions, and helping them discern facts from lies:
- We were unable to cancel some group tours as we are only resellers of these tours and not the organisers of these tours. However, we did help guests collectively submit their requests and concerns to the tour organisers
- We were unable to refund some air tickets as airliners still have not declared the routes as cancelled
- We were unable to refund some group tours as it is too near to the traveling date and there were no travel restrictions imposed on the destination country yet
Were the guests wrong to have such concerns? Absolutely not
Were the travel agencies wrong to give such answers? I’d like to think not too
A rock and a hard place
Every single party was in between a rock and a hard place – customers had to travel with some sort of risk and worry or have their payment forfeited; as an intermediary, travel agents were limited in their options to assist their guests
To make things worst, there were double standards imposed by a lot of airlines in terms of flight cancellation and refunds and travel agents like us were put at the disadvantageous end. A simple example was that flights purchased directly from an airline (we call this FIT / individual tickets) could be refunded whereas tickets that travel agents were holding (group tickets) were only offered (limited time) postponement options with no refunds. This caused many many more confusions amongst Malaysian travellers
During that week alone, I heard about numerous cases of travel agents that I know being reported to various authorities for fraud and deception including:
- A group of 10 guests collectively reported a travel agency to the police demanding for a refund and the travel agency owner was brought to the police station and questioned for 7 hours
- A travel agent received a lawyer letter from a customer who demanded a full refund for a trip to a country that did not yet have any travel restrictions
Two weeks later, things started to take a turn for the worst. Worries turned into irrational thoughts and also finger pointing. Xenophobia and discrimination started to become the dominant voices of the online community
- Foreigners were branded as virus carriers
- Local people who got infected were discriminated against, there was a very prominent case near the place I work that a recovered covid-19 patient was still labelled as a disease carrier
- People who chose to proceed with their vacations, for whatever reasons and to whichever countries, were cursed and publicly shamed
- People who just came back from overseas, for business or pleasure, were also frowned upon
More hate for travel agents
Many outbound travel agents were at the forefront of the receiving end of this hate
Some guests asked why were travel agents forcing them to go to visit a virus infected area (even though there weren’t any travel restrictions then)
Other travel agents have it worst, having receiving death threats and also vandalism of their offices
Some travel agents were asked to guarantee that guests won’t be infected if they continued on with their trips.
I’m not trying to say that travel agents are totally not at fault.
There are irresponsible travel agents who did not put their guests’ safety as their first priority and did not bother to properly explain the options that their guests for them to make an informed decision
In all honesty, the tourism industry was put in a pretty bad and vulnerable position
Regardless of what decisions or solutions travel agencies made, or despite having complied with all the travel rules and regulations set forth by the government, we were at the losing end
People seem to have forgotten that like everyone else, we too have staffs to feed, and we have families to take care of
Fortunately, in my case, a big majority of our guests were understanding enough not to give us any unnecessary trouble of worries; and I am blessed to have a team that generally handled all arising issues properly with our guests’ wellbeing as a priority
Everything that I have described earlier happened in a span of approximately a month
What happened after that was a slew of cancellations and refund requests, both from guests to us and from us to airlines, hotels, operators and all service providers
Many of the travel agencies which I know have basically zero business income from March onwards (and some even from mid February onwards), and expect not to have any income at least until the end of the year
Many of them are struggling to survive
It’s that bad
This is not a post for attention or sympathy, nor is this a post to defend all travel agents. This is just a count of my personal experience of being in the tourism industry and hopefully giving you a more in depth picture of how bad the tourism industry is hit
These challenges might last a while
What will happen to many travel agencies in the coming months? My guess is there will be a slew of travel agents closing shop, together with many other SME owners from other industries out there. If you are currently unaffected in terms of employment, please know that you are one of the luckier ones
But now is not the time to think about all this, now is the time to #stayathome, respect the MCO and its rules, and help the nation get over this pandemic. The world is sick and we need to do our part to help it recover
Only after that will we think about picking up the remnants of our businesses, and I hope that day comes soon