LANGKAWI, KEDAH - When the Langkawi travel bubble was announced on Sept 2, I joked with friends and family who live in Selangor that while we could not cross districts to meet each other even though I lived in nearby Kuala Lumpur, we could book a flight to Langkawi, more than 400km away, and catch up there instead.
A week later, inter-district movement was allowed in the Klang Valley, and Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob promised that inter-state travel will resume once 90 per cent of Malaysian adults are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
But this rests on the success of the Langkawi pilot programme.
There is enough public apprehension for both the state governments in Melaka and Pahang - home to popular spots such as Genting Highlands and Tioman island - to decline an offer to open up similar travel bubbles on Friday.
Apparently it is so far, so good for Langkawi, which has welcomed tens of thousands of visitors since its bubble began on Sept 16, which was a public holiday and the start of a long weekend.
Long queues, full flights
Although the Langkawi health office has reported a handful of "imported" Covid-19 cases in the past fortnight, only one of them have so far been attributed to tourist arrivals, who were all tested before being allowed on planes and ferries into the island getaway.
Travellers were advised to be at airports up to four hours before take-off, but friends who had been part of the Sept 16 throng told me that even a couple of hours was sufficient as the process of verifying a negative test result and vaccination status was very smooth.
Nonetheless, while these protocols were fairly straightforward when I arrived 2½ hours early at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, what was mind-boggling were the check-in queues.
This was despite AirAsia repeatedly sending me notifications about contactless check-ins. I thought that meant the previous practice of printing the boarding pass and luggage tags and then checking in the luggage with a handheld scanner would be enhanced.
Instead, we reverted to queueing, with no social distancing being enforced, then handed over our phones containing our vaccination and Covid-19 test certifications, proof of identification and luggage by hand to ground staff, before proceeding to the departure hall.
Before entering the hall, we were again asked to produce these documents, and went through security scans. Finally, we had to remove our masks before entering the plane, which incidentally was full, to ensure that we were the passengers named on the boarding passes and photo IDs.
But I suppose the rationale here is that we ARE in a bubble. If you're fully vaccinated and tested negative, then there should be little fear of contracting the virus. Still, it's not foolproof.
There is the possibility of false negatives, or an infection occurring after tests done up to 48 hours before departure. One could also pick up the virus, now mutated into airborne variants, on the way to the airport or within the terminal from contaminated surfaces or people who were not recently tested as there are workers as well as non-tourist travellers to other destinations.
There are also active cases in Langkawi - located in Kedah, which has one of the slowest vaccination rates of Malaysia's 13 states - and travellers could return carrying Covid-19 with them onto planes, which are swiftly turned around for return trips.
Nonetheless, every tourist we met in Langkawi was determined to have a good time, with most not having the opportunity to travel inter-state since January.
Varying levels of strictness for protocols
Hotels had varying levels of strictness for guests with regard to masks and social distancing, although their own staff strictly adhered to these protocols.
At one hotel, some manning the breakfast buffet and kitchen took extra precautions such as wearing face shields to ensure food and utensils were not contaminated.
However, corporate communications manager Annushia Balavijendran felt that protocols were not always adhered to during her four-day trip.
While in Kuah town, I saw an argument between a coffee-shop owner and a Caucasian male about being allowed to dine in. I couldn't figure out how the hungry man - "How am I supposed to eat for the next four days?"- managed to get into the island if he had not completed the 14- or 28-day period after being inoculated.
Signs of life, but not for all
Some tourist attractions like the Sas Rimba floating fish farm are visibly busier these days.
But certainly, there was a sense that those who relied on the hospitality sector wanted to ensure that the bubble succeeded as the island's economy had suffered enough.
Many hotels have managed to survive despite international borders remaining shut since March last year, relying on inter-state tourism which was allowed for most of the second half of 2020.
Cost-cutting measures, though, were evident.
Offerings such as recreational activities and in-house restaurants were slimmed down and some hotels had to quickly hire inexperienced staff to cater to full houses, having laid off swathes of workers during the lockdown.
At some hotels, otters performed the right to freely forage on the property, a deal too good to pass up.
The entire Telaga Walk shopping arcade in tourist hub Pantai Cenang has been shut, with the only sign of life being an evening troupe playing the keepy-uppy game of sepak raga with a rattan ball.
Cenang, once a magnet for tourists reminiscent of Patong in the southern Thai island of Phuket, resembles a ghost town in the day, with only a few travellers strolling past empty shops. Cool evenings see some traffic but many are just locals enjoying the sea breeze after work.
The usually jammed main street in Cenang became eerily quiet in the middle of the day.
Across Langkawi, money changer outlets are caked in dust and many boutiques and eateries remain closed despite the bubble, with even some duty-free shops - booze and tobacco unencumbered by heavy taxes had always been a key attraction - still shuttered.
Despite the prime location - in front of the only duty-free shop open in Cenang - buskers found little appreciation for their craft.
Our boatman, Sam, who took us on a mangrove tour, happily told us to take our time beyond the allotted three hours. Business was slow, as evidenced by hundreds of boats moored at the Tanjung Rhu and Kilim jetties.
"Maybe people are still scared to come out and they just stay in their hotels," he said, reflecting the two-speed recovery that the bubble has brought.
Hundreds of boats were seen baking in the sun, unused, despite the thousands of tourists on the island because many are still afraid to venture out from the secure confines of their hotels.
Higher-end hotels, with their already built in low-density models, may very well cash in on the bubble, but the locals themselves may not be reaping the benefits if travellers are not out and about.
Unless Covid-19 becomes truly endemic, we may never see the Langkawi of pre-2020 again.