Experts urge caution as Malaysia eyes travel bubbles amid rising Covid-19 cases

Malaysia suffered a 78.6 per cent drop in tourist arrivals between January and September. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's announcement that it was exploring travel bubble arrangements with other countries to revive the tourism industry has drawn cautious optimism from experts, who say the government first needs to bring down coronavirus infections in the community, which have recently been rising by close to 2,000 new cases daily.

"We need to work harder to bring the number down to a manageable level first. This is to ensure that the 'bubble' will not deflate soon after its implementation," Dr Sazaly Abu Bakar, a professor and director of the Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre at Universiti Malaya, told The Straits Times.

Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, an epidemiologist with Universiti Malaya, said many factors have to be carefully considered, including the economic benefits, the feasibility of such travel bubbles, the health risks and plans to mitigate risks.

The number of reported new cases in the countries concerned also need to be taken into account, as well as the number of new daily infections per capita, tests per capita, positivity rate, severity of infection in those countries, and rate of increase or decrease in cases.

"Malaysia and whatever country it is negotiating with will definitely need to agree on criteria for a reasonably safe environment before such a travel bubble can be agreed on," Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba said.

"One needs to remember that the pandemic situation can take a turn for the worse quickly in countries. This might affect such arrangements. So such a travel bubble needs to take that possibility into account and take appropriate measures to ameliorate the situation as and when that happens."

The policy should be in place only after all the risks are assessed appropriately, said Dr Malina Osman, associate professor, epidemiologist and biostatistician at Universiti Putra Malaysia, noting that many of Malaysia's cases came from clusters in workers' hostels.

"In a month or two, we're looking forward to the availability of vaccines... the outlook is promising. For any anticipatory issues, standard recommended solutions should be documented and followed. As we are already almost a year facing this pandemic, we need to learn to live with the situation."

Senior Minister in charge of Security Ismail Sabri said on Dec 12 that the nation's borders cannot remain closed for too long and that "Covid-19 will always be around us like dengue".

Malaysia suffered a 78.6 per cent drop in tourist arrivals between January and September this year compared with the corresponding period last year.

According to Tourism Malaysia, Singapore was Malaysia's top source of tourists in 2019, with Indonesia coming in second, and China, third.

Currently, the foreigners allowed to enter the country are mostly spouses or children of citizens, permanent residents, and long-term pass holders.

Malaysia reopened its border with Singapore for essential travel on Aug 17, but with restrictions on crossings.

In August, Singapore had allowed Malaysians with Singapore work passes to serve a seven-day stay-home notice (SHN) at their own residence as Covid-19 prevalence rates in Malaysia were similar to Singapore's at the time.

But from Nov 22, following a spike in Malaysia's Covid-19 numbers, all travellers entering Singapore with a travel history to Malaysia in the previous 14 days are required to complete a 14-day SHN at a dedicated facility, and undergo a swab test.

Malaysia, on the other hand, shortened its quarantine period for incoming travellers to 10 days from 14 days, beginning on Monday (Dec 14).

Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri does not deny that there are hurdles to the green bubble plan.

"With many countries previously designated as green zones having experienced resurgences of the virus, it remains challenging to kick-start general tourism and country-to-country travel," Datuk Seri Nancy told ST.

But Malaysia is continuing to pursue "extensive discussions" at regional and international levels "for when the situation surrounding Covid-19 gets better and when countries are ready to receive international leisure travellers in the future".

A World Tourism Organisation meeting on Dec 9 had discussed common travel safety protocols, she said.

The programmes the ministry is exploring for visitors include golfing, diving, bird watching, hiking and caving, with pre-planned itineraries through registered travel operators.

"This segment of tourism is considered low-risk due to the nature of its activities, which normally involve a small number of tourists and minimise interaction with the general public," she said, adding that such plans would be subject to strict health and safety measures.

In August, she had said that Malaysia would likely remain closed to tourists until the second quarter of 2021.

Malaysia recorded 1,295 more cases on Wednesday (Dec 16), bringing total infections to 87,913. Another seven fatalities were reported, taking the death toll to 429.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.