LANGKAWI • Visitors flocked to the Malaysian island of Langkawi yesterday as it became the country's first holiday hot spot 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 yesterday, with water cannon firing over the first plane to land at its airport with 159 passengers.
"We're very excited because we haven't been anywhere since February 2020," said Ms Andrea Manason, an Australian based in Kuala Lumpur who was travelling with her family of six.
"It's real exciting for us to be here, and to actually have the kids leave the house," she said.
Under the initiative, hotels and businesses have been allowed to reopen while activities on the island's palm-fringed beaches are starting up again.
Tourists must be fully vaccinated to visit and also have to take a virus test before departure.
Mr Alexander Issac, head of a yacht charter firm, said he was delighted at the reopening as the island's tourism sector had been badly hit by virus curbs.
"We can't afford any more lockdowns... We need to reopen the economy and get people working again," he said.
The island off Malaysia's northwest coast has long been popular with domestic and overseas visitors, although foreign tourists are still barred from the country.
Langkawi 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. The country has now logged more than two million cases and over 22,000 deaths.
But the authorities have started easing curbs in recent weeks as the outbreak slows and the vaccine roll-out picks up speed, with more than half the population now fully inoculated.