Malaysia's travel agencies turn to selling fruits, food and even land as borders stay shut

Apple Vacations now sells imported food and other products online. PHOTO: APPLE VACATIONS

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's travel agencies, hit hard by the collapse of the tourism industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are turning from selling ski and safari tours and packages to popular destinations like Paris, to trading in fruits and other consumer products online to solve their cash-flow problems.

Apple Vacations, for instance, offered holidaymakers a wide range of travel packages around the world, from ski trips in South Korea to safaris in Kenya before the pandemic struck.

But after Malaysia closed its borders in March last year and instituted a ban on leisure travel, it has been forced to suspend its 200 tour packages and find new ways to sustain its business.

"To heal the wound, we started selling premium fruits from Japan, Korea and Australia, gifts and tidbits from Japan, and Japanese wagyu beef and dried scallops," Apple Vacations group managing director Koh Yock Heng told The Straits Times.

"The reason for the diversification is for self-rescue and to stop the bleed," he added.

Meanwhile, after almost a year of haj and umrah trips being cancelled, travel agents under the Umrah and Haj Travel Agencies' Association (Papuh) launched an online marketplace in January to sell dates imported from Saudi Arabia, perfumes, fresh poultry, cakes and even plots of land to generate new sources of income.

Its online marketplace goes live on Facebook every Wednesday.

"'Papuh For Business' was set up because our members were suffering from a lack of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic," Papuh secretary Jeffri Sulaiman told ST.

Previously, Malaysia sent 31,600 haj pilgrims to Mecca annually.

"Demand has been great," said Datuk Jeffri, adding that the top-selling products on the marketplace are Ajwa dates, with more than 20 tonnes sold.

One seller was seen advertising land for sale from around RM29,800 (S$9,700) per lot, as well as private yacht charters for a minimum of four hours, with the first hour priced at RM2,000, and subsequent hours at RM1,500 each.

Industry players are urging the government to come up with a targeted rescue plan for tour and travel agents amid the ongoing pandemic and bleak forecast for travel.

"Tourism businesses are currently in extreme distress due to the very fragile and uncertain business environment expected to continue late into 2021," Malaysia Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Tan Kok Liang said in January this year.

A total of 95 tourism agencies and tourism activities operators have closed down, while others have seen their incomes affected. Datuk Tan said earlier this month that Malaysia's over 5,000 travel agents have been badly hit and thousands of tourism vehicles left idle.

The tourism industry suffered an estimated loss in revenue of more than RM100 billion last year.

As at March 10, travel is allowed only between states that are under the Recovery Movement Control Order - Perlis, Melaka, Pahang, Terengganu, Sabah as well as the Federal Territories of Putrajaya and Labuan.

Travellers must use a registered tour agency and obtain police approval.

For now, travel agents can only wait for the travel ban to be lifted. But there are hopes that this can take place soon, as Malaysia rolled out its vaccination programme late last month.

"We hope that Malaysian borders will reopen and that our members can bring pilgrims for haj again this year," said Mr Jeffri.

Said Apple Vacations' Datuk Seri Koh: "People are still eager to travel, as it is a part of human lifestyle. Tourism will return. It is a matter of time and only made possible when international travels take off. As an outbound player in this sector, I believe the hope for the future is still there."

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