TOURISM Malaysia has released foreign tourist arrival figures for the first three months of this year, which showed an unprecedented 99.4% decrease compared with the first quarter of last year.

From January to March, arrivals totalled only 25,256, in contrast to 4,233,455 for the same period last year.

For the first time ever, Singapore no longer contributed the largest number of foreign tourists to Malaysia. It felled three places to number four, after Thailand, Indonesia and China.

Who could have imagined that on average, there were only 322 arrivals per month from Singapore during the first quarter? For the 84-month period, from 2013 to 2019, average monthly arrivals from Singapore were over 100,000 per month.

In April, a reporter asked for my comments regarding the call made by the United Nations World Travel Organisation for stronger coordination on travel protocols between countries to ensure the safe restart of tourism and to avoid another year of massive losses for the sector.

This came after new data showed an 87% fall on international tourist arrivals globally in January as compared to 2020. My comments were reported in an article headlined “Malaysia will see just over 132,000 foreign tourists this year, says expert”, published on April 19 in theSun.

My projection of 11,000 visitor arrivals per month was based on actual numbers from April to December last year, which averaged 11,030 per month. Last September, I predicted that total arrivals will be 4.3 million in 2020 compared with 26.1 million in 2019, dropping by 83.5%.

Later, I adjusted the decrease to 83.4% at 4,332,731, as published in “2020 was bad for tourism, 2021 could be worse” on Jan 9.

At the end of February, figures released by Tourism Malaysia gave the number as 4,332,722, which was only nine fewer than my prediction.

As little has changed for more than a year, the number of foreigners allowed into the country on essential travel will hover around 11,000 per month.

If so, we will end up with 132,000 foreign visitors this year, which will be a decrease of 97% over last year.

Few sectors have been devastated by this pandemic more than international travel. Although outbound tour operators have lost huge income opportunities, inbound and transport operators suffered a double whammy when their properties and equipment lost most of their market value.

After the movement control order had to be introduced in March last year to control the Covid-19 outbreak, market values of passenger planes, cruise ships, tour buses, theme parks, luxury hotels, holiday resorts and entertainment centres fell like sacks of potatoes.

Last July, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the tourism sector will need four years to recover. If visitor arrivals for this year are only 132,000, it may take a decade for arrivals to return to the 2019 level of 26 million.

Growth over the next few years would be painfully slow and often interrupted by outbreaks of Covid-19, including new variants.

More investments are unlikely for the tourism industry as even recommissioning existing facilities and former personnel may not be financially feasible.

It is no easy task to get grounded aircraft and crew flying again, anchored cruise ships sailing the high seas, mothballed tour buses criss-crossing the country, closed theme parks reopened for thrill-seekers, shuttered hotels operating again like clockwork, deserted resorts swarmed with holidaymakers, and empty entertainment centres bursting with high spenders.

For now, the good times are gone and will become a distant memory over the next few years. It is better to get real as the days of mass tourism is over.

Many people will find it hard just to survive and it is no longer fun travelling for holidays when there are sufferings all around. It would be foolish for those who have benefited greatly from tourism to count on the rapid return of international travel.

Unlike the end of conventional wars when things could quickly return to normal and people swiftly rebuild their lives, wars on corona viruses are unlikely to end anytime soon.

We have hit rock bottom, and the only way is up. But sadly, we will stay here as long as a large number of people in our midst continue to adopt a lackadaisical attitude in combating Covid-19.

They can easily be seen chatting closely with each other while sitting, standing or walking. They often fail to practise physical distancing or wear their masks properly, with the upper portion not fully covering the nose and breathing through the gaps. Often, I had to dodge people crossing my path or move away from where I was standing when others came near.

Although most people do not fear death, they do not realise that they have to go through untold sufferings before succumbing to Covid-19. These people could not even put up with some inconveniences by disciplining themselves to practise physical distancing and double masking.

Sadly, the pandemic had laid bare the fabric of our society, which has proven to be fragile. Clearly, we lack the discipline, resolve and leadership needed to win the war against a microscopic virus.

While tourist arrivals have hit rock bottom, so have our country and people. The root cause may well be our brand of education that facilitates large number of students to pass through our schools and universities but without being truly educated, which can be seen whenever they display lack of courtesy.

We hit rock bottom mostly by design through spoon-feeding and pampering the citizens. To reset, we will have to start with overhauling the education system, which will take at least another generation to see results.

The last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of the 21st century have been the lost years for our country. Over this half century, we could have emerged as a fully developed nation, instead, our society has regressed.

Large numbers of people are unemployed or underemployed, especially graduates, while millions of foreign workers are in our midst, both documented and undocumented.

YS Chan is Asean Tourism Master Trainer for travel agencies, master trainer for Travel and Tours Enhancement Course and Mesra Malaysia. He is also a tourism and transport industry consultant and writer. Comments: