Commentary: Is Langkawi travel bubble the start of Malaysia’s broader travel reopening?
As more countries embrace travel bubbles and vaccination rates in Malaysia climb, Stewart Nixon explains why the prospects of Malaysia replicating its Langkawi experiment may actually be lower than expected.
CANBERRA: Malaysians can be forgiven for latching onto signs of better days ahead, having suffered through a wretched 2021.
There have been more than 2 million COVID-19 cases and 25,000 deaths, millions have fallen into poverty, and another prime minister has assumed office.
But September has brought glimpses of light as the fruits of rapid and widespread vaccination delivery are borne.
Over 83 per cent of the official adult population is fully vaccinated (or about 60 per cent of the overall population) and hospitalisation rates are falling. The seven-day moving average infections has come down by a third since peaking in end-August.
In a more symbolic move for those dreaming of blue skies and shining sands, Langkawi’s idyllic islands reopened to domestic tourists on Sep 16. The pilot travel bubble is limited to fully vaccinated locals, with SOPs to limit transmission from undetected carriers.
Pre-departure testing has identified a small number of infected intending to travel, with other tourism destinations using this to advance a swift and broad reopening.
Melaka, Genting highlands, Tioman and Sabah have all been slated for imminent inclusion in the travel bubble, while prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has his sights on an ASEAN-China arrangement.
As Malaysia moves headlong into a COVID-19 endemic phase, where do travel bubbles like Langkawi fit in and will the country see more?
AN ISLAND MIRAGE?
Tourism in tropical Malaysia may conjure up images of lush forests and beautiful beaches, but paradise holidays represent a drop in the economic ocean for the country.
Attempts to recover the RM136 billion (US$32 billion) in lost tourism revenue last year (of which RM63 billion was domestic) needs much more than island bubbles.
The pre-pandemic proportion of domestic leisure trips last year was only around 10 per cent, with visits involving loved ones and shopping commanding over a three-quarters share.
Even then, Tourism Malaysia surveys, conducted after some domestic travel recommenced in mid-2020, found safety concerns and financial constraints (respectively about 84 per cent and 67 per cent of respondents) posed significant barriers to non-essential travel. That was before the pandemic dramatically worsened.
While vaccination provides reassurance and there is undoubtedly some pent-up desire, most Malaysians simply cannot afford leisure trips. Personal exposure to the pandemic tragedy casts a long shadow.
But with overall tourism ordinarily contributing around 16 per cent of gross value added and 23 per cent of employment, pressure will build for a much bolder travel resumption.
Malaysia is not the first regionally to experiment with travel bubbles, and the precedent is not comforting.
Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan – and isolated countries like Australia and New Zealand – have seen pandemic phase bubbles burst amid escalating outbreaks.
Singapore is trying again as it “lives with COVID-19”, creating vaccinated, quarantine-free travel lanes with Brunei and Germany requiring testing and tracing.
Thailand’s Phuket sandbox meanwhile targets long-stay international travellers willing to serve 14 days’ quarantine in localised luxury.
Travellers must be fully vaccinated and comply with testing and tracing requirements before and after entry, but may ultimately travel onwards within Thailand. And while the scheme has underwhelmed – with concerns around administration, testing costs and returning Thais depressing numbers – that it has continued without major incident is positive.
Bangkok recently announced further plans to liberalise international travel with holiday spots prioritised.
The hope for Malaysia is that high vaccination rates and SOP adherence will be sufficient for broader travel reopening.
To be an endemic scheme of meaningful scale, Langkawi and other parts of Malaysia must be more ambitious, learning from international experience to integrate domestic and international travel and be adapted to different environments (islands, rural and urban) safely but attractively.
There is a greater push to reopen travel all around the world. From Langkawi to Phuket and aspirations from Bali to Phu Quoc, Southeast Asia has prioritised remote tourism hubs for reopening.
These are among the most tourism-dependent locales with the greatest political and economic pressure to reopen, while also catering to relatively low-infection risk recreational activities.
But air travel bubbles are a curious choice likely to be overtaken by endemic phase ambitions and the wider goal of relaxing broader COVID-19 rules altogether.
First, the government is more likely to look at a broader reopening as vaccination rates reach targets, rather than prioritise localised relaxing of rules.
This is where health system capacity becomes a primary consideration. This is typically lower outside of major cities. Exotic, more isolated places like Langkawi are limited in their abilities to mount a surge response to address a major outbreak.
In Malaysia’s case, the travel bubble has opened as national hospital and intensive care bed overcapacity eases, but most freed capacity is in Kuala Lumpur. Capacities in Kedah and Penang – of most relevance to Langkawi - were still severely stretched as of early September.
Second, targeted tourism liberalisation benefits a very small select group of travellers moving around for non-essential reasons.
The opening of tourist destinations precedes the wider reopening of domestic travel, which awaits achieving 90 per cent adult vaccination nationally. The latter is a broader strategy that will benefit a lot more Malaysians.
Third, opening domestic tourism bubbles goes against the transition to endemic living.
The pandemic phase has emphasised government determination of restrictions and SOPs. While these will persist to some extent, the endemic phase places greater faith in vaccination and people’s personal responsibilities.
Visiting loved ones is not risk-free but reflects a conscious choice within families, broader welfare considerations and point-to-point trips that are geographically contained. Tourists by contrast will visit as many places as allowed, may not fully appreciate local rules, and may downplay minor symptoms that threaten their holiday.
When seeking to optimise endemic phase travel, there remain strong arguments to triage around purpose (family reunion, business, long-stay in a single location) rather than geography where restrictions remain necessary.
With widespread vaccination, there is hope trade-offs between essential travel and tourism, domestic and international movements, and single versus multiple destinations will become obsolete.
Recent research from Malaysia itself demonstrates the low rate of hospitalisation among the fully vaccinated, offering hope for health system relief and greater freedoms generally.
COVID-19 will nonetheless do considerable damage if left to circulate freely at significant levels. There are legitimate concerns among health experts that Malaysia – and Southeast Asia – may be reopening too soon amid a rise in the highly transmissible Delta variant.
Competing considerations around timing, pre-entry requirements and post-entry restrictions must be balanced to provide predictability, foresight and incentives for travellers. Travellers will avoid destinations that frequently adjust rules or impose burdensome entry and quarantine procedures.
To be sure, Langkawi’s success will not be determined in two weeks but over many months, alongside Malaysia’s reopening generally.
That Malaysia is better placed in terms of vaccination and adherence to SOPs than early movers in Europe and North America provides some comfort.
But Langkawi is only a tentative first step into the broader minefield of endemic life and travel’s place in it, with further relaxation of domestic and international travel barriers the true litmus test.
Stewart Nixon is a research scholar at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University and a recent research visitor at the University of Malaya.