Langkawi travel bubble wins approval from Malaysian travellers and hotels, but coronavirus fears remain

  • Tourists were happy to be on holiday again after months of Covid-19 restrictions, and hotels in the island chain rolled out the red carpet for their visitors
  • Many restaurants and shops remain closed, and one family likens their trip to Langkawi to ‘being on vacation out of season’

Residents of Malaysia were recently given a week’s notice of the opening of the country’s first domestic travel bubble, which is allowing tourists back to the archipelago of Langkawi amid the coronavirus pandemic.

To take advantage of the opportunity, travellers over 18 would need to be fully vaccinated (in Malaysia, that means having received a second vaccine dose at least 14 days earlier, or, for single-dose vaccinations, having been jabbed at least 28 days earlier).

Authorities had planned to open other travel bubbles from October 1, allowing tourists to visit Tioman Island, and Melaka and the Genting Highlands in peninsular Malaysia, but in the last week of September abruptly cancelled the plans over concerns about vaccinations rates.

How did the launch of the Langkawi bubble go? Rania El Muzayen, her husband and three children were among the 3,200 tourists who arrived in Langkawi on the day it reopened to tourists: September 16.

Yaseen, Sanna and Ammal El Muzayen have fun on the beach in Langkawi, Malaysia. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen
Yaseen, Sanna and Ammal El Muzayen have fun on the beach in Langkawi, Malaysia. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen

Having been unable to leave Malaysia since December 2019 and Kuala Lumpur since January 2021, the family had wasted no time booking one of the first Air Asia flights out of the capital.

“The feeling of going on holidays again was wonderful and our kids were so excited to get on a plane and travel again that they packed their suitcases days in advance,” says El Muzayen.

She grew concerned when the Ministry of Health announced that travellers needed a negative Covid-19 test to be allowed to board the plane (as well as being fully vaccinated).

“The news came out less than 24 hours before our flight, but thankfully authorities later clarified that both PCR and antigen tests would be accepted and that passengers could buy saliva self-test kits at the airport or bring them from home, so we went by the pharmacy to buy some and performed the tests in a special area at the check-in,” says El Muzayen.

Before her September 17 flight to Langkawi, Monica Tindall was advised by Malaysian Airlines to be at the airport four hours in advance.

Ziad and Ammal El Muzayen on a quad, in Langkawi. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen
Ziad and Ammal El Muzayen on a quad, in Langkawi. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen

“When we entered Kuala Lumpur International Airport, we were asked for copies of our hotel booking, boarding pass, passport, Covid-19 test, and to check in with the MySejahtera app showing our fully vaccinated status,” she says.

The proceedings went smoothly and arriving at the airport two hours before departure would have been sufficient, Tindall says.

After their plane landed, the passengers on the flight the El Muzayen family took were greeted outside the Langkawi terminal by a singer and two musicians celebrating Malaysia Day. The family had opted to hire a car to get around, but Tindall says that it was easy to hail a taxi outside the terminal “and it was a nice surprise to see that, contrary to Kuala Lumpur, cab drivers were allowed to take more than one passenger”.

Although [ …] we managed to do some fun family activities like horse riding and being out on banana boats and quads, it felt a little like being on vacation out of season

Rania El Muzayen, a recent visitor to Langkawi with her family

At five-star resort The Datai Langkawi, general manager Arnaud Girodon was in the lobby on September 16 waiting to welcome guests back.

A lockdown and ban on inter-district travel to curb the spread of coronavirus had forced the resort to close for five months and, despite rumours swirling since August of an upcoming domestic travel bubble, hotels on Langkawi were notified formally by the government of its launch only on September 9, giving them just a week to prepare for the reopening.

“The mise en place [preparation] for guests to arrive included ordering all the fresh produce we needed and getting kitchens ready, servicing and running the air conditioning in the rooms, deep cleaning all public areas, preparing all outdoor facilities including the beach set-up and making sure that uniforms were all in perfect condition so our staff could look their best,” says the Frenchman, whose staff saw 150 visitors come through the door on day one of the bubble.

Arnaud Girodon is the general manager of The Datai Langkawi. Photo: Datai Langkawi
Arnaud Girodon is the general manager of The Datai Langkawi. Photo: Datai Langkawi

In the first week of reopening, the Datai welcomed 500 travel bubble guests, says Girodon, and quickly reached 90 per cent occupancy.

The El Muzayen family were holidaying in Langkawi for the third time. They had stayed at the main beach, Pantai Cenang, so opted for a resort in the western part of the island this time.

They say that it was evident their hotel had been closed for months and that the air conditioning had not been used or maintained. The children’s games room was closed and several items on the restaurant’s menu were unavailable.

A police officer waits for arriving tourists in Langkawi. Photo: Reuters
A police officer waits for arriving tourists in Langkawi. Photo: Reuters

“It is important that hotels do not underestimate the preparation that goes into reopening,” says Four Seasons director of public relations Kanchana Ganglani. At the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, staff spent the five months of closure revamping the menu at the restaurant, carrying out maintenance on the villas and training, she says.

“What we noticed the week of the reopening was that guests really appreciated being able to travel again and they are definitely more willing to spend money on excellent service and getting pampered,” says Ganglani.

Tindall and El Muzayen noticed that many restaurants and shops in Langkawi remained closed – many having been forced to shut permanently – and that the duty-free stores that tourists normally flock to were half empty and forced to close early.

It’s still early days and I’m sure we will see a fully operational Langkawi soon

Monica Tindall, editor of food and travel website The Yum List

“I heard reports across the industry about how difficult it was to find staff,” says Tindall, who is the editor of food and travel website The Yum List. “Many of those who worked in the hospitality industry had found other means of making an income and had no desire to return to the long hours associated with the job.”

However, she was delighted to see that some of her favourite restaurants – such as Nam Restaurant at Bon Ton – were open.

“The restaurants we dined in made a heartfelt effort to keep their staff on despite the lack of income this year. From a customer perspective, the experience was pretty smooth. Other places were not prepared. They weren’t expecting such big numbers of dine-in guests and were caught short-handed and short-staffed.”

The Datai Langkawi gets a thorough cleaning and prepping before its reopening. Photo: The Datai Langkawi
The Datai Langkawi gets a thorough cleaning and prepping before its reopening. Photo: The Datai Langkawi

Overall, Langkawi didn’t seem quite like it had previously to El Muzayen. “Although [ …] we managed to do some fun family activities like horse riding and being out on banana boats and quads, it felt a little like being on vacation out of season,” she says.

The strict Standard Operating Procedures in place to combat the pandemic are contributing to a much different travel experience. At resorts, guests are required to wear masks in public places, temperature stations have been set up and cleaning is constantly being undertaken.

“I really dislike the expression ‘the new normal’ but, for now, this is what we have to do to keep everyone safe,” says Girodon.

Passengers have the MySejahtera app, used to monitor the Covid-19 coronavirus status, scanned before boarding a yacht in Langkawi. Photo: AFP
Passengers have the MySejahtera app, used to monitor the Covid-19 coronavirus status, scanned before boarding a yacht in Langkawi. Photo: AFP

In an interview with The Star newspaper, the chief executive of the Malaysian Association of Hotels, Yap Lip Seng, said the travel bubble pilot project was not meant to guarantee zero Covid-19 cases. “What it is, instead, is an exit plan to live with Covid-19, having understood that it will not go away.”

Almost 80 per cent of the Malaysian population is now vaccinated and would-be travellers are feeling more confident than they were in January when there was a fourth wave of infections, caused seemingly by the reopening of interstate travel over Christmas and New Year.

However, some Langkawi residents are worried the travel bubble will cause a sharp increase in the number of cases and, as a tourist in Langkawi, El Muzayen constantly had to remind herself that most people around her were vaccinated.

Tourists arrive in Langkawi as it reopens to domestic tourists. Photo: Reuters
Tourists arrive in Langkawi as it reopens to domestic tourists. Photo: Reuters

“Being careful and keeping a safe distance is so deeply rooted in us now that it is difficult to forget,” she says, “even when on holidays.”

On the day of the launch of the Langkawi travel bubble, five positive cases were detected before departure from Kuala Lumpur (at the time of writing, flights were also departing for Langkawi from Kota Baharu and Penang, and ferries are running from Kuala Kedah and Kuala Perlis).

Thus far, no positive cases involving tourists have been recorded on the island since the reopening.

A housekeeping worker sanitises a bathroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, in Langkawi. Photo: AFP
A housekeeping worker sanitises a bathroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, in Langkawi. Photo: AFP

After a disastrous 2020, Langkawi is in dire need of tourists, and the 400,000 visitors targeted by the end of the year – who will spend an estimated of 165 million ringgit (US$39 million) – will breathe new life into the tropical paradise.

“It’s still early days and I’m sure we will see a fully operational Langkawi soon,” says Tindall, who was told that several local residents had shed a tear when they saw the first Malaysian Airlines plane land on September 16.

The aircraft, which left Kuala Lumpur at 9.35am, was saluted by water cannon upon its arrival.

A water salute welcomes the first Malaysia Airlines aircraft to touch down in Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur on September 16 after the opening of a travel bubble for domestic visitors. Photo: AFP
A water salute welcomes the first Malaysia Airlines aircraft to touch down in Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur on September 16 after the opening of a travel bubble for domestic visitors. Photo: AFP
Children play with bubbles at Pantai Cenang in Langkawi. Photo: AFP
Children play with bubbles at Pantai Cenang in Langkawi. Photo: AFP
Pantai Cenang, in Langkawi in November, 2020 (top), and the same view in late September, 2021. Photo: AFP
Pantai Cenang, in Langkawi in November, 2020 (top), and the same view in late September, 2021. Photo: AFP
Langkawi Skycab cable cars in operation. Photo: AFP
Langkawi Skycab cable cars in operation. Photo: AFP
The Berjaya Langkawi Resort. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen
The Berjaya Langkawi Resort. Photo: Ziad El Muzayen
Visitors walk around a lookout point near a Langkawi Skycab cable car station. Photo: AFP
Visitors walk around a lookout point near a Langkawi Skycab cable car station. Photo: AFP

By : Lise Poulsen Floris (A Danish freelance writer currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) – SCMP

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