LANGKAWI (AFP, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Visitors flocked to the Malaysian island of Langkawi on Thursday (Sept 16) as it became the country's first holiday hotspot to reopen after a coronavirus lockdown that has hammered the vital tourism industry.
Restrictions on local travel had been in place for months and international borders remain largely closed as Malaysia battles its worst Covid-19 wave.
But with the outbreak gradually easing, Langkawi, one of tropical Malaysia's premier holiday destinations, has been chosen for a pilot project to reopen the sector to domestic tourists.
The island began welcoming visitors on Thursday, with water cannons firing over the first plane to land at its airport.
The Boeing 737-800 carrier transported 159 passengers under the travel bubble project by the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry.
"We're very excited because we haven't been anywhere since February 2020," Andrea Manason, an Australian woman based in Kuala Lumpur travelling with her family of six, told AFP.
"It's real exciting for us to be here, and to actually have the kids leave the house." Under the initiative, hotels and businesses have been allowed to reopen while activities on the island's palm-fringed beaches are resuming.
Tourists must be fully vaccinated to visit and have to take a virus test before departure.
Alexander Issac, head of a yacht charter firm, said he was delighted at the reopening as the island's tourism sector had been "badly impacted" by virus curbs.
"We can't afford any more lockdowns... We need to reopen the economy and get people working again." The island off Malaysia's northwest coast has long been popular with domestic and overseas visitors, although for now foreign tourists are still barred from the country.
Langkawi, which is part of Kedah state, welcomed around 3.9 million visitors in 2019, with the number falling dramatically since the pandemic began.
If the island's "tourism bubble" is a success, then other holiday destinations are expected to reopen soon.
Neighbouring Thailand has reopened several islands, including Phuket, to vaccinated foreign tourists.
Malaysia imposed a nationwide lockdown in June as the highly contagious Delta variant sparked a surge in infections, and has now logged more than two million cases and over 22,000 deaths.
But authorities have started easing curbs in recent weeks as the outbreak slows and the vaccine rollout picks up speed, with over half the population now fully inoculated.
Kedah Menteri Besar Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor said he hoped that tourists and tourism industry players alike would ensure strict compliance with Covid-19 health protocols to prevent any spread of infection.
Kedah police chief Kamarul Zaman Mamat said police would increase patrols at several tourist spots on the island to ensure compliance with the health requirements among holidaymakers as well as tourism operators.