Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

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Domestic tourists disembark from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 738 aircraft after landing in Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur on Sept.16, 2021. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP)
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A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Tourists arrive at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens to domestic tourists on Sept. 16, 2021amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Tourists walk past a thermal scanner at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens on Sept. 16, 2021 to domestic tourists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Updated 17 September 2021

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

  • Reopening of Langkawi part of domestic tourism bubble strategy to restore Malaysia’s reeling visitor sector
  • Only fully vaccinated domestic travelers allowed to visit island resort as 30,000 tourists expected in next 2 weeks

KUALA LUMPUR:  The Malaysian holiday resort of Langkawi on Thursday welcomed its first visitors in months as part of a government pilot project to revive the country’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic-ravaged tourism sector.

Langkawi has been reopened as a domestic tourism bubble in the face of Malaysia’s ongoing battle against the virus.

The government strategy is aimed at giving a much-needed shot in the arm to the hospitality and tourism industry — one of the top contributors to the Malaysian economy — after months of local travel curbs and if successful it could lead to other holiday destinations following suit.

Tight restrictions have been put in place and only fully vaccinated domestic tourists will be allowed to visit the island resort off the country’s northwestern coast.

Malaysia has so far recorded more than 2 million COVID-19 cases among its population of 32 million — one the of highest per capita infection rates in Asia — and new daily case figures remain high at around 20,000.

The country’s director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, told Arab News the Langkawi Travel Bubble Task Force had divided the island into three zones to monitor developments. “All preparations have been made and we hope for the best,” he said.




A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

Local officials said they were ready to receive more than 30,000 tourists in Langkawi over the next two weeks.

Nasaruddin Abdul Muttalib, chief executive officer of the Langkawi Development Authority, said: “We have put in proper procedures so that there is no spread of the virus.

“Passengers will be screened at entry points. If they show any symptoms, they must isolate, and necessary steps will be taken. We have thought of all the scenarios.”

Authorities are banking on the full cooperation of visitors as the project’s success could be key to Malaysia’s return to normal.

Tourism Langkawi chairman, Pishol Ishak, said: “Everybody has a role to play. If everybody works together hand-in-hand, this measure will be very successful and can be replicated in other parts of Malaysia.”

For Langkawi business owners and travelers flying to the resort, famed for its white sandy beaches, the reopening represents a big first step toward a return to normality.

Sheba Gumis, a 33-year-old tourist from Kuala Lumpur, told Arab News: “We have been cooped up in Kuala Lumpur for over a year now. Life was put on hold for so long. The virus will continue to live with us.”

Ahmad Firdaus, a car rental company owner in Langkawi, said it was high time tourism reopened for the sake of the industry’s survival.

“We have to go on doing businesses in this new norm. We need tourist spots to be open to gain income. Even if the situation is bad, we must learn to live with it,” he added.

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ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’

Updated 02 October 2021

ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’

  • Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place but others believe the columns served an astronomical purpose

The Rajajil Columns, a mysterious site located 20 kilometers south of Sakakah city, are often nicknamed the “Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia.”

The name of the site translates to “the men,” and the monument might be the oldest in the region, researchers say.

Mystery surrounding the origins of the monument has attracted significant attention and visitors from around the Kingdom. Many myths and superstitions surround the columns. Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place, but have yet to discover more about the importance of the columns.

Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place but others believe the columns served an astronomical purpose

The site consists of 50 monolithic stones that stick out of the ground at different angles. It is believed that they have stood in position since about 4,000 B.C. However, over the centuries, some have fallen to the ground.

Despite the dominant burial site theory, a competing belief proposes that the stones originally served an astronomical purpose due to the angles in which they stand in relation to the stars above, adding to the mystery of the site.

Visitors must seek prior permission from authorities before visiting the site.


Tabuk, one of KSA’s undiscovered gems, hosts valleys that are witnesses to history

Updated 19 August 2021

Tabuk, one of KSA’s undiscovered gems, hosts valleys that are witnesses to history

  • The archeological village of Disa, home to Nabataean tombs carved into rock formations, is thought to date back to the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.
  • It is also believed to be the ancient city of Madyan, mentioned in the Qu’ran as the place where the Prophet Moses fled to after leaving Egypt

JEDDAH: Rich with antiquities and archeological sites, Tabuk is one of Saudi Arabia’s undiscovered gems. The area is home to valleys, oases, streams, picturesque sandstone columns, and tall palm trees. 

It is also the site of the archeological village of Disa, where one can find Nabataean tombs, the facades of which are carved into the rock formations. 

These tombs can also be found at the oasis of Mugha’ir Shu’ayb, also known as Al-Bada’. This site is thought to date back to the end of the second millennium B.C. and many believe it to be the ancient city of Madyan, mentioned in the Qu’ran and held to be the place where the Prophet Moses fled to after leaving Egypt.

Houses and temples are also carved into the mountains here, often with intricate design work around their entrances. The area has become very popular with photography enthusiasts.

These are the rare historical landmarks of Tabuk, a tourist destination popular because of its historical significance, but also because of its diverse nature and its mild climate, which makes it an excellent option for a summer getaway.

Indeed, Tabuk has witnessed a dramatic increase in domestic tourism over the past few years. Speaking to Arab News, brothers Khaled and Ahmed, who operate private tours to several areas of Saudi Arabia, said that Tabuk is still a mystery to many. 

“It’s a calm place and is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities,” said Khaled. “From exploring the nooks and corners of the valleys to barbecues and star gazing at night, the place is wonderful. And, just think, (ancient) civilizations passed through here.”

 


Jordan tourism expected to boom by 2023, tourism officials say

The tourism sector in Jordan has gradually started to signs of a positive trend after a near collapse. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)
Updated 08 August 2021

Jordan tourism expected to boom by 2023, tourism officials say

  • Regional tourism has started picking up and international tourists are expected to return in August, September and October
  • King Abdullah II directed the government to work intensively, through its ambassadors, to depict Jordan as a ‘green’ country for traveling

AMMAN/LONDON: The tourism sector in Jordan has gradually started to show signs of a positive trend after a near collapse due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, tourism officials said.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) began opening up to domestic tourism, and then to Gulf and neighboring countries, in order to facilitate border movement, Dr. Abed Al-Razzaq Arabiyat, the managing director of the JTB told Arab News.
“We expect the return of international tourism during August, September and October after overcoming several obstacles,” Arabiyat added.
Jordan stood out for its low COVID-19 rates at the start of the pandemic but then saw an exponential rise in confirmed cases, and by November recorded the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths per capita in the Middle East. Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, hitting the tourism sector hard.
Jordan has since managed to flatten the epidemiological curve, has moved from a UK “red list” country to an “amber” one, and in February significantly accelerated its inoculation campaign.

 


“Societal immunity is high and our epidemiological situation gives positive indications that a complete breakthrough for tourism in the kingdom is near,” Arabiyat said, adding that Jordan has eased more restrictions compared to many other countries, which will play a major role in attracting tourists.
He said King Abdullah II directed the government to work intensively, through its ambassadors, to depict Jordan as a green country, and that it is “clearly moving in that direction.” Marketing campaigns are in place and tourism offices are ready to cooperate, as some countries have already moved the kingdom to their “green” lists. Jordanian hotels and resorts have also begun receiving international bookings from September to November.

The tourism sector in Jordan has gradually started to signs of a positive trend after a near collapse. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

Minister of Transport Wajih Azayza said that Queen Alia International Airport received 9 million passengers in 2019, and hopes to return to these numbers after the pandemic.
The airport said on July 17 it welcomed over 1.2 million passengers during the first half of the year, with the highest number recorded in June with more than 389,000 passengers. The airport’s total economic contribution exceeded $3.53 billion (about 8.9 percent of GDP).

The government has also implemented subsidization programs and launched a tourism risk fund valued at $28.2 million to support the sector and alleviate damages. In 2019, Jordan received a record 3 million visitors, bringing in $5.78 billion, which fell to $1.41 billion in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster for Jordan’s tourism industry, which suffered its worst contraction in decades last year. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

Last month, the king called for unified efforts to help the tourism and travel sector recover, which accounts for about 20 percent of GDP, and promote tourism to the “Golden Triangle” of Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.
Arabiyat said that Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world, was most affected due to its high dependence on international tourism, but expects to “hear positive news by September, as there is a demand for the ‘Golden Triangle.’”
From July 1, authorities implemented the second phase of Jordan’s strategy to return to normal life, with tourist facilities permitted to reopen at full capacity. The curfew in the areas of the “Golden Triangle” in the south were lifted, and fully vaccinated visitors may enter as they have been declared COVID-free zones. Phase 3 will begin on Sept. 1, provided that cases remain low and the government reaches its immunization target.

Jordan has greatly eased restrictions compared to many countries, which will play a major role in attracting inbound tourism. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

Arabiyat said JTB has also launched the “Breathe” summer marketing campaign to target tourists, particularly families, from Gulf countries.
He said after enduring two exhausting years of the pandemic, “returning to life as we knew it became a dream that everyone was yearning to live once more; yearning to travel and enjoy life, yearning to feel alive again, hence the name of our campaign ‘Breathe’… where people can enjoy life and just breathe.”
Fawzi Al-Hammouri, chairman of Jordan’s Private Hospitals Association, said there had been a remarkable increase in the number of patients arriving for treatment in Jordan in June, specifically from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, after witnessing a decrease during the past year.
Arabiyat said, however, the greatest concern was preserving employment within the tourism sector.

Jordan is taking several steps to get the number of foreign tourists back to the record 3 million visitors in 2019. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

Layali Nashashibi, director of communications and public relations at Movenpick Hotels and Resorts, said they did not let go of any staff throughout the pandemic, even though they had to close both hotels in Petra and one in Aqaba, while the hotel in the Dead Sea was taken over by the government and used for quarantining when it started to bring Jordanians home from abroad.
“Aqaba, at the beginning, it was clean from COVID-19, but Aqaba has tourism and the port. So, if both closed, then the economy will suffer, so they decided that Aqaba would remain open from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m.,” Nashashibi told Arab News.
“I had to interfere with the government to extend some hours of the (hotels and) restaurants, as well as to have more facilities open,” she said, adding that after speaking with the prime minister, they managed to extend opening hours until 10 p.m. across the whole kingdom.

Government efforts to revive the tourism sector appear to be paying off but officials expect two years of recovery. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

“Now we are depending on international tourism to come back to Jordan … We are optimistic and we have been promised by the government, the Ministry of Tourism, and Jordan Tourism Board that Ryanair and EasyJet will resume flights (to Aqaba) by October,” she added. EasyJet has started taking bookings for Aqaba from November, while cruise ships have also began to trickle in with one from Jeddah expected to arrive in Aqaba at the beginning of August.
Nashashibi said they also hosted familiarization trips for tour operators. Authorities are offering different types of tax reductions and discounts on landing fees, and tourists from Eastern Europe started coming to Aqaba from the end of June, with planes from Russia expected to increase in the coming period.
The city is regulated by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, which has turned it into a low-tax, duty-free city, attracting several mega investment projects like Ayla Oasis, Saraya Aqaba, Marsa Zayed and the expansion of the port, all of which were greatly affected.

Officials announced special measures for Jordan’s ‘Golden Triangle’, which includes Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, and fully vaccinated visitors may enter as they have been declared COVID-free zones. (AN photo/Sarah Glubb)

“Hopefully, COVID-19 will disappear and we return like before or better than before,” Nashashibi said, adding that she does not see tourism improving until the third quarter of 2022, and expects a boom in the tourism and economic sectors to start by 2023.
Sally Abu Hijleh, from Montana Travel and Tourism agency, also said it will take about a year for tourism to return, adding that they are working on offers and discounted prices to encourage travel.
For Marwan Eid Abo Al-Adas, owner of souvenir shop Bazaar Al-Wadeeh in Jarash, even if tourists return this summer, all the tourism sectors have suffered such heavy losses that, he believes, they will still struggle.“The compensation will be greater after two or three years (as) there must be continuity in the tourism sector,” he said.
Marwan Soudi, a Jordanian living abroad, who was not able to return home last year, said: “The way they are handling the pandemic here in Jordan, and the way they rolled out vaccines really fast, the authorities are saying that the tourism and just everything being back to normal by 2022-2023, I would say that sounds like a reasonable aim.”

 


Saudi tourist Abdul Aziz Al-Shalawi said due to Jordan having one of the lowest rates of infections, tourists from Saudi Arabia prefer to visit this summer more than any other country, especially Europe, as its “safety is excellent.”
He said Jordan was beautiful and diverse and that Saudis were also attracted to the kingdom for its medical options. “Jordan has potential and very good doctors and is focused on attracting tourists for treatment, whilst also enjoying their time,” he added.
American tourist Tom Langdon said he hoped tourism would open up more from July to help the Bedouins in Petra, and the people that rely on tourism.
“It’s pretty unfortunate. I went to Petra, and I think there was like maybe 20 people there, and one of the vendors showed me a video, and it looked like a rock concert, it looked like you could barely move without touching someone and he said that that’s how it used to be before COVID-19,” Langdon said.
“I think (Jordan) is an untapped source, I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of this isn’t known to more people. Pretty much every place that I’ve been here in Jordan has been absolutely beautiful (and) I’ve been having a pretty good time.”


Italy to ban mammoth cruise ships from Venice as of Aug. 1

Updated 14 July 2021

Italy to ban mammoth cruise ships from Venice as of Aug. 1

  • Culture Minister said the ban was urgently adopted at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday and will take effect Aug. 1
  • Government acted fast “to avoid the concrete risk” the UNESCO lists Venice to “world heritage in danger”

ROME: Declaring Venice’s waterways a “national monument,” Italy is banning mammoth cruise liners from sailing into the lagoon city, which risked being declared an imperiled world heritage site by the United Nations within days.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the ban was urgently adopted at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday and will take effect Aug. 1. It applies to the lagoon basin near St. Mark’s Square and the Giudecca Canal, which is a major marine artery in Venice.
Franceschini said the government decided to act fast “to avoid the concrete risk” that the UN culture agency UNESCO would add Venice to its list of “world heritage in danger” after it meets later this week in Beijing.
The Cabinet decree also “establishes an unbreakable principle, by declaring the urban waterways of St. Mark’s Basin, St. Mark’s Canal and the Giudecca Canal a national monument,” the minister added.
Before the coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed international travel, cruise ships discharging thousands of day-trippers overwhelmed Venice and its delicate marine environment. Environmentalists and cultural heritage have battled for decades with business interests, since the cruise industry is a major source of revenue for the city.
UNESCO recommended last month placing Venice on the agency’s list of World Heritage in Danger sites.
The Italian government previously decided to ban the ships but without establishing so soon a date. But on Tuesday, the government “decided to impose a strong acceleration” to implementing the move given the looming UNESCO review, Franceschini said in a statement.
The ban applies to ships weighing more than 25,000 tons or longer than 180 meters (530 feet) or with other characteristics that would make them too polluting or overwhelming for Venice’s environment.
The Cabinet decree also establishes compensation mechanisms for navigation companies and others affected by the ban. Until a more suitable docking area can be established elsewhere in waters outside the heart of Venice, the government has approved creating at least four temporary docking sites near the industrial port of Marghera, located on the northwestern Adriatic Sea.


Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying Branson touches down

Updated 11 July 2021

Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying Branson touches down

  • Touch down occurred around 09:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off
  • "Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far," Branson said

SPACEPORT AMERICA, United States: A Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying Richard Branson touched down Sunday after a voyage the British billionaire called an "experience of a lifetime."
"Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far," he said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It reached a peak altitude of around 53 miles (85 kilometers), beyond the boundary of space according to the United States, allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth's curvature.
Touch down occurred around 09:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off.