Malaysia's hotels and other businesses face manpower shortage as border reopens

Passengers waiting to check in their luggage ahead of departure from KL International Airport in Sepang on March 8, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Hotels and other tourism players in Malaysia are looking forward to the full reopening of its borders, but manpower shortages could affect their ability to ramp up services.

From Friday (April 1), fully vaccinated foreigners can enter Malaysia without needing to quarantine, while locals will be allowed to freely travel overseas.

Although it remains to be seen if the hospitality sector will see a swift return to full houses, some businesses are currently facing staff shortages, a legacy of Covid-19 lockdowns and travel curbs over the last two years.

Mr Olivier Lenoir, general manager of Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur, said: "We have been anticipating the comeback of more regional and international tourists to the hotel for months on end."

He told The Straits Times: "Alteration of workforce is inevitable during the pandemic, but we are blessed to have a motivated line of employees that could manage and cope well with the varied and evolving manner of our business operations to date. Now that circumstances are getting better, we hope more recruitment opportunities will come our way."

He added: "Once the border reopening is effective, we do expect an increment in general occupancy daily in view of foreign tourist traffic."

The New York Hotel in Johor Baru, with an occupancy rate of around 48 per cent, is currently operating with just enough manpower.

"The staff and heads of department are all multitasking. We are now adding more staff... We expect to see a busy JB again," said its general manager, Ms Tan Ai Lee.

Mr Freddie Lee, executive director of UMLand Lifestyle, the food and beverage arm of developer UMLand, which owns developments in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru including Zenith Mall, said the company is urgently boosting manpower.

"With the reopening of the borders, many of those businesses which have survived are scrambling to recruit staff in anticipation of better business. Our Toast Box franchise, Suasana Suites and Amari Hotel are urgently seeking new staff for our operations," he told ST.

Mr Yap Lip Seng, chief executive officer of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, said: "The industry is positive and supportive of the reopening, and we are hopeful that the requirements will be made as traveller-friendly as possible. On the same note, we need to still establish vaccinated travel lanes with countries that are not fully open to accommodate travel from both sides."

He also noted that marketing efforts for domestic tourism will need to be intensified to promote Malaysia and spur arrivals.

Madam Kavita Tharmalingam, 42, is planning to take her family on a holiday to Europe in the next three months.

"It is convenient now that some countries allow vaccinated tourists to enter without quarantine. Buying travel insurance will definitely be a top priority, as well as bringing sufficient medication," she told ST.

The only hassle for her, perhaps, is in renewing her family members' passports, which had expired during the pandemic.

Airline ticket sales have surged, sparking activity at the country's airports and airline offices.

Malaysia Airlines has increased flights to London, Bangkok, Sydney and Perth, while AirAsia's ticket sales to Singapore have surged.

"We have seen an increase of 281 per cent for flights sold from Malaysia to Singapore after April 1," AirAsia chief commercial officer Tan Mai Yin told ST.

Apart from increasing its Singapore-Kuala Lumpur daily flight frequency from one to four, the airline will also resume its flights between Singapore and Kuching, Miri, Langkawi, Ipoh and Kota Kinabalu.

Many tourism professionals were forced to move to other sectors or start their own businesses over the last two years amid massive lay-offs. But not all of them are raring to return.

Former Malindo Air flight attendant Hana Batrisya Zainol, 24, started a nasi lemak venture with her husband Muhammad Nur Azizee Roslan, a former catering staff member, after they were both retrenched from the airline in 2020.

"Now is not the right time to go back to flying. It is still not stable yet. For now, we are both enjoying this business and we plan on expanding to another state," she told ST, adding that they were looking into selling their frozen nasi lemak to airlines and mini markets.

Some industry players say the recent minimum wage hike from RM1,200 (S$386) to RM1,500 monthly starting May 1 will further strain their finances.

Dr Sri Ganesh Michiel, deputy president of the Malaysia Budget and Business Hotel Association, said: "The hotel industry is still in the process of recovery... the decision (to raise the minimum wage) is not fair to the hotel industry players."

Most of them are facing cash flow problems and they will take a long time to recover, he told ST.

Still, many are optimistic that the industry will gradually bounce back.

"The reopening of the border will bring back some hope for the hard-pressed business sector and for those commuting to work in Singapore," said UMLand's Mr Lee.

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