JOHOR BAHRU: Johor is the frontline of Malaysia’s battle against the Wuhan virus. Out of eight confirmed cases of the coronavirus infection in the country, seven were detected in the southern state.
The virus has prompted travel restrictions. China has grounded flights in and out of Wuhan and banned tour groups abroad. Meanwhile, Malaysia has temporarily suspended the granting of visas for Hubei province residents.
The decision was made despite Malaysia and Johor being increasingly reliant on Chinese tourist dollars.
While these are challenging times for Johor's tourism sector, the state government has prioritised public safety and stepped up precautionary measures.
Johor’s executive council member for tourism, Ms Liow Cai Tung, told CNA that the travel restrictions as a result of the spread of the virus will definitely affect the state’s tourism sector.
She noted that China has imposed travel restrictions from Wuhan and its surrounding cities since Jan 23.
"Hence, we believe that incoming tourists from that area will fall,” said Ms Liow.
She added that the “unexpected situation” surrounding the spread of the virus will impact the Visit Johor 2020 campaign in the short term.
“We will streamline our tourism strategy once the virus has been contained. I hope people will stay calm and pray so that those infected by the virus will recover, regardless of their nationality,” said Ms Liow.
The foot traffic at major Johor Bahru shopping malls such as City Square, Komtar JBCC and Toppen Shopping Centre appeared to be less than usual this week.
Ms Rabiah Rahmat, who owns a small store at Komtar JBCC selling traditional Indian snacks told CNA that business has dipped by more than 50 per cent.
“There are barely any visitors since the first cases were announced in Johor,” said the 42-year-old.
A spokesperson from Toppen told CNA that it has assigned more personnel to sanitise corridors, play areas, escalators and other common areas.
"We are providing hand sanitiser at the entrances of all toilets. We are keeping all our staff and tenants updated on the situation and set high standards for hygiene.," the spokesperson said.
The mall has also implemented a travel ban to China and required all staff to declare their travel movements from the last two weeks.
Over at Legoland and Desaru Coast’s Adventure Waterpark, only a handful of visitors could be seen. These attractions are popular among visitors from China.
TOURISM SECTOR DECLINE COULD BE WORSE THAN SARS: EXPERT
A tourism planning expert interviewed by CNA warned that the impact on tourism in Johor this time round may be worse than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis in 2003 which crippled tourism in the region.
Prof Amran Hamzah from University Teknologi Malaysia said: “The tourism industry is relatively resilient but this is a huge test not only for Johor but also globally.”
During the height of the SARS epidemic in April 2003, Malaysia imposed a week-long travel restriction on travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam
The restriction was lifted a week later but those from China and Vietnam were required to obtain medical certificates saying that they were SARS-free.
READ: China virus sends shockwaves through Asia tourist industry
As a result, the total number of tourists from all countries to Malaysia fell by 20.5 per cent in 2003 as compared to 2002.
Furthermore, the country’s tourism receipts dipped by 17.4 per cent within the same period.
Prof Amran added that the current situation could impact Johor harder, as the southern state has become particularly reliant on Chinese tourist dollars, especially with targeted attractions like Forest City appealing to the Chinese market.
“The (current situation) could even be worse than SARS given Malaysia’s over-emphasis on the China market,” he added.
SITUATION UNDER CONTROL, SAYS CHIEF MINISTER
Despite the potential economic impact, the state government has ramped up measures to monitor entry points to safeguard public safety.
Thermal scanners with monitors as well as digital thermometers have been placed at Johor’s land border checkpoints Bangunan Sultan Iskandar near Woodlands Checkpoint and Kompleks Sultan Abu Bakar near Tuas Checkpoint to screen incoming visitors.
When CNA visited the Bangunan Sultan Iskandar on Tuesday evening (Jan 28), several health officials wearing protective equipment and face masks could be seen monitoring a thermal scanner. The scanner was positioned to capture all incoming visitors as they headed to the immigration hall.
In a speech on Wednesday during an annual safety conference, Chief Minister Sahruddin Jamal said that efforts undertaken have kept the situation "under control”.
He said that measures to intensify health screening and monitor incoming visitors at all 12 entry points in the state have been “satisfactory”, especially at high volume areas at the land checkpoints and Senai International Airport.
“The government agencies must instill confidence to the people through various mediums, including social media, to share their strategies … that aim to curb the spread of the virus,” added Dr Sahruddin.
HOTELS ON HIGH ALERT, TOUR DRIVERS TO MONITOR PASSENGERS
The state government has also briefed hoteliers, tour guides as well as other industry players to ensure that they are prepared to combat the virus.
Director for the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) in Johor, Mr Ivan Teo, told CNA that hotels in the state have prepared faces masks and hand sanitisers in their premises.
“Hotels under MAH have experience after learning from how to prevent the spread of the SARS virus in 2003, and hotel staff members have been trained on how to execute quarantine procedures,” said Mr Teo.
Meanwhile, the director for Malaysia’s Budget Hotel Association in Johor, Mr Jarod Chia highlighted that all hotel staff have been briefed to ask their guests’ travel history before they check in.
Desaru Coast, an integrated eco-entertainment development in southeastern Johor, which includes resorts like Hard Rock Hotel and The Westin as well as the Adventure Waterpark, told CNA that it is adopting a “business as usual” approach.
However, it has also taken precautionary measures such as introducing screening across its premises and educating its employees on infection control and preventive steps.
“We always follow the most up-to-date medical recommendations and continue to comply with the government’s directive in executing our mitigation plan,” the spokesperson said.
Even drivers for tourist buses or vans have been advised to wear face masks and observe the health of their passengers.
According to Mr Jimmy Leong, chairman for Johor Tour Guides Association, all drivers have been reminded to act quickly and report to authorities in case any of their passengers are unwell.
In spite of the measures in place, tourism expert Prof Amran stressed that Johor’s tourism policymakers should regard this as a reminder on the importance of developing domestic tourism, instead of relying on international visitors.
“The lesson from SARS is that we should not neglect domestic tourism which managed to save the industry,” said Prof Amran.
He urged the state government to consider attractions and eco-tourism targeted at locals.
“Once this global calamity subsides … we have to rethink our strategy and focus. We cannot go on with this obsession with numbers and should focus on quality,” he said.