‘This year is about survival’: on Langkawi, Malaysian holiday island, tourism staff and businesses stretched by Covid-19

  • Malaysia’s border closure and domestic lockdowns to combat Covid-19 appear to have revived an ancient curse cast by a beauty who drove islanders wild
  • As tourism businesses and their staff face lean times, a businessman suggests it could be time for the ‘jewel of Kedah’ to develop medical tourism and education

Langkawi’s sole historical site, surrounded by glistening rice paddies, is easily missed.

The Mahsuri Tomb is a relic of a 19th century tragedy, the final resting place of a beauty who – according to legend – drove the islanders wild with her good looks. She married a warrior but when he went to serve in a war, a jealous village chief had her framed as an adulterer. Mahsuri was executed and, with her dying breath, cursed the island for seven generations.

The curse appeared to ring true – Langkawi stagnated even as the Malaysian tiger roared through decades of impressive economic growth.

Fortunes began to change when Mahathir Mohamad – a native of Kedah, the largely mainland state that Langkawi is part of – first came to power in the mid-1980s.

The Mahsuri Tomb is the final resting place of a beauty who, according to legend, cursed Langkawi for seven generations. Photo: Thomas Bird

Langkawi was made a duty-free zone in 1987 as an incentive to lure holidaymakers. It worked; by 2016, three and a half million people were visiting the island annually. In 2018, the government announced it was “targeting 9 billion ringgit (US$2.17 billion) in tourism revenue in Langkawi by 2020”, helped by a newly expanded international airport that could handle four million passengers per year.

But when Covid-19 swept through Southeast Asia at the beginning of the year dubbed “Visit Malaysia 2020”, a movement control order (MCO) was implemented nationwide. Public gatherings were prohibited, interstate travel banned and national borders closed to all but returning Malaysians and departing foreigners. The measuressucked the lifeblood out of Langkawi.

When Nadia Jamaludin first touched down in Langkawi, in 2015, “There was always something happening, reggae musicians visiting from [Kuala Lumpur] or DJs performing on the beach at New Year”.

It was that atmosphere that convinced her to settle on the island, having moved from the Perhentian Islands, on the opposite side of Peninsular Malaysia. “In Langkawi, I discovered things Perhentian doesn’t have, like ATM machines and clothes shops, yet nature is still incredible,” says Jamaludin. “Even now, I’m still amazed by the sunsets.”

Jamaludin found work at Salona, a boutique guest house centred on a Balinese garden that is popular with Italian and German holidaymakers. “We’re almost always full; we sometimes have to turn people away,” she says, as we tour the grounds.

Nadia Jamaludin found employment at a boutique guest house that is now seeing very few guests. Photo: Thomas Bird

Much has changed since the virus struck, however. “Some guests stayed with us throughout the MCO,” she says, of the initial two-month lockdown. “By the summer, they were gone.”

The MCO was replaced by a conditional movement control order in May, followed by a recovery movement control order in June, which has been extended until the end of the year. Domestic tourism began picking up, and bars, spas and restaurants opened again – albeit under tight regulation.

However, with recent spikes in cases prompting the lockdown of four states, including Kuala Lumpur, and the country’s borders still closed to foreigners – who typically make up 50 per cent of Langkawi’s visitors – tourists are conspicuous by their absence.

When there’s no business, you have to get busy. Spend time to fix what needs fixing. Develop relationships. And work on getting people through the door

Lee Wei Beng, seafood supplier

“Salona closes every July for a month so my boss can visit her family in Italy,” says Jamaludin. “But this year, we closed for three months. I had to draw on my pension fund to survive.” The guest house has reopened but, despite room rates having been discounted by 30 per cent, few guests have returned.

Still, Jamaludin feels lucky compared to the migrant workers who, in better times, sustain the area’s tourism industry.

“They are all gone,” she says, showing me a row of empty one-room houses standing between Salona and another small guest house, the Langkawi Country Lodge, where workers – mostly Bangladeshi, Indian and Burmese – usually live. “They were either sent back to their home country or crammed into resort staff quarters.”

Yati Abdullah (right) and Mastazi Ahamad moved to Langkawi in 2010. Photo: Thomas Bird

Yati Abdullah and husband Mastazi Ahamad moved to Langkawi in 2010. After decades working in the corporate sector in Penang (a state in northwest Malaysia), the couple decamped to the “island of waterfalls” 110km (68 miles) to the north, where they set up and manage hotels.

“We worked on 37 properties in a decade,” Abdullah says, proudly. Last year, after they found an abandoned house near Pantai Cenang (Cenang Beach), they drew up plans for the Langkawi Country Lodge, and started with 10 rooms and four backpacker dormitories, with plans to add to it.

“Before the MCO, business was booming, all our rooms were full,” Abdullah says. But holiday joys quickly morphed into lockdown blues.

Abdullah and Ahamad’s expansion plans have been put on hold. Photo: Thomas Bird

“We’ve been lucky enough to keep some rooms occupied with foreigners stuck in Malaysia,” says Abdullah. “Only one person per household was permitted to go to the supermarket. That was me. I had four rooms occupied at the time but when I fed my guests on the terrace, the police came, as restaurants weren’t permitted to open. I had to explain that I only have an outdoor eating area.

“The worst month we had was September, with just one room sold. But, fortunately, I found some catering jobs to keep us afloat.”

Their expansion plans have been put on hold as the couple begin to budget for potentially two years of muted business. Now that domestic travel is beginning to return, a few bookings are coming in and there was a brief rebound in August, because of Islamic and national holidays – but with lockdowns being reimposed across Malaysia, cancellations are still common.

With recent coronavirus spikes prompting the lockdown of four states and the country’s borders still closed to foreigners, tourists in Langkawi are conspicuous by their absence. Photo: Thomas Bird

A spike in cases in mainland Kedah has been of particular concern, as they have made statistics for the whole state look bad and have led to the temporary disruption of ferry services.

Some hoteliers in Pantai Cenang do not have the means to weather a protracted slump. “The Coconut Guesthouse is for sale,” says Ahamad, citing just one example of resent closures. “And NR Motel is now selling fried rice.”

Petty crime is also on the rise. “We guest house owners regularly speak with the local police,” Abdullah says. “Langkawi is one of the safest places in Malaysia but we’ve been warned robberies are increasing.” The crimes are those of desperate villagers, it would appear.

Lee Wei Beng is uniquely aware of the difficulties facing the tourism industry. Photo: Thomas Bird

Lee Wei Beng has worked in the food and beverage industry since 1993, and has enjoyed a front-row seat to Langkawi’s rise from “kampong [village] style”, when buildings were “no higher than a coconut tree”, into a resort-studded “honeymoon island”. Lee, who works as a seafood supplier, travels all over the island, and is uniquely aware of the difficulties facing the tourism industry.

“This year is not about doing business, it’s about survival,” Lee says, when we meet in Resorts World Langkawi, a luxury hotel complex fronted by an infinity pool and bar that we have virtually to ourselves. “Judging by my margins, tourism is down 75 per cent. Businesses like the Langkawi Country Lodge will be OK because they have very low overheads, but for bigger businesses, this is the time to think differently.

“When there’s no business, you have to get busy,” he says. “Spend time to fix what needs fixing. Develop relationships. And work on getting people through the door. I tell my clients to organise events, ladies’ nights, BBQs, whatever you have to do. And advertise. If you pass by two restaurants and only one has staff inviting you in, it’s obvious which one you’ll choose.

“Many people here don’t understand how social media can help their business. Well, now is the time to learn.”

Lee also thinks the island needs to diversify away from the one-track economy that has left Langkawi looking cursed once more. “What about establishing a university here, or inviting some medical clinics to set up like they have in Penang?”

One evening, Jamaludin takes me to Pantai Kuala Muda, to witness one of Langkawi’s famous sunsets. The remote beach is the domain of native islanders, affording me a glimpse of what Langkawi was like before Mahathir lifted the curse.

In the glow of the disappearing sun, I meet a man casting a weighted net into the water, then picking through it to see if there’s anything edible within.

“Have you been a fisherman for a long time?” I ask.

“Actually, I’m a taxi driver. But there’s no business, so I come here every day to try and catch my dinner.”

By : Thomas Bird – SCMP

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