Malaysian tourism faces labor crunch as Singapore travel takes off

Tourism Malaysia Published 2 weeks ago on 17 June 2022 | Author TIN Media

Malaysia, which has long been among the top vacation choices for Singaporeans, is struggling to deal with an influx of visitors from its neighbour following the lifting of coronavirus travel restrictions.

Singapore and Malaysia share one of the world’s busiest land borders, but travel came to a halt in 2020 as both countries shut their doors to curb coronavirus transmission. 

Since reopening on April 1, more than 600,000 Singaporeans have travelled to Malaysia, according to the Malaysian tourism ministry, which is hoping to welcome 2 million international visitors by the end of December.

More Singaporean travellers are also expected to arrive by rail, with cross-border railway services set to resume on Sunday.

“The situation now is slowly returning to the pre-pandemic period,” Nurul Hidayah, customer service operator of Malaysia’s main rail service, Keretapi Tanah Melayu, told Arab News.

Most tickets have already been sold out, she added.

Before the pandemic, tourism was responsible for more than 13 per cent of Malaysia’s gross domestic product, and the country has been eagerly awaiting a revival of its hospitality sector. But now stakeholders realize they may not have enough hands to cope with the visitor influx.

Tourism Minister Nancy Shukri said last month that at least 15,000 additional workers are needed in the hospitality sector alone and the government will try to bring them from abroad.

“When the borders opened, suddenly there were a lot of challenges,” Uzaidi Udanis, president of the Malaysia Tourism Council, told Arab News.

“One is the lack of manpower because a lot of workers have gone to work somewhere else. It is difficult for us to get them back, especially those working in the transportation, hotel and services sectors.” 

Over the past two years, the hospitality industry has been forced to downsize during lockdowns. Some workers switched to other sectors and have no plans to return.

Zecherian Tan, who has worked at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur and has 20 years of experience in the sector, said that he could not “see anyone who would want to work in the hotel industry.”

He added: “The hotel basic pay is really, really low, and the workload is heavy and tiring.”

With the labour crunch threatening the recovery of the tourism sector, Prof. Donald Low, director at the Institute for Emerging Market Studies of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said that countries such as Malaysia could benefit from a change in their tourism model.

“Malaysia is a middle-income country that is trying to be a higher income country,” Low, a Singaporean, told Arab News. “It should not compete as a low-cost, backpacker location, but as a middle-class location.”

The pandemic might have proven “an opportune time for countries like Malaysia” to reconsider their tourism strategy, he said.