Tour OperatorsTour operator bosses optimistic on steering ahead through tough times and why it’s a good time to regroup and strategise for the future

‘We will survive’, says niche tour operators

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Borneo Adventures’ Philip Yong and Gyalthang Eco Travel’s Uttara Sarkar Crees on why it’s a good time for travel businesses to regroup and strategise on things that need to be fixed before the industry rebounds.
Borneo Adventures’ Philip Yong and Gyalthang Eco Travel’s Uttara Sarkar Crees on why it’s a good time for travel businesses to regroup and strategise on things that need to be fixed before the industry rebounds. Photo Credit: Naomi Neoh

PENANG – As travellers reckon with the temporary travel restrictions and advisories, niche tour operators see their strength in being nimble to tide through the downturn while bracing for further impact.

Independent travel businesses remain optimistic about the measures to sustain their businesses while making the long-term preparations that will stand their companies in better stead when business resumes.

Philip Yong, managing director of Borneo Adventures, which specialises in niche multi-day tours in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, is focusing on what it can do to sustain its business.

“I’ve been in business for the last 33 years – we suffered a lot during the first Gulf War and through SARS. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to put away some reserves for a rainy day such as this,” he revealed.

He shared that while the company currently “still has some groups”, it has seen business drop with cancellations of two Chinese groups. Groups from Italy and Denmark, which together form about one-third of its overall business, have also taken a hit.

Malaysia has stopped allowing visitors from countries that have been most heavily affected by the virus such as China, Korea, Japan, Iran and Italy, with Denmark the latest to join the list last Thursday.

“We need to sit it out. I [agree with] what’s been said earlier – that it’s a good time to regroup and strategise on things that need to be fixed, because there will be a rebound,” he added.

Uttara Sarkar Crees, who runs an ecotourism company Gyalthang Eco Travel that focuses on tours to the Tibetan city of Shangri-La, shared that “all tours are cancelled up till the end of June and maybe into mid-July”.

“The problem is that our operating season is April to mid-November, so we don’t know what is going to happen from July,” said Ms Crees.

“For us, it’s two areas of concern. What the government has done to shutdown completely to help contain the virus is fantastic. But at the same time, the question is how long they will keep things on lockdown especially in an area like Shangri-La, where there has been no reported cases of the coronavirus,” she explained.

“We can actually handle guests right now, but we don’t know when we’ll be allowed to. It’s not up to us to make the decision. And the other concern is when the guests will start coming back.”

The company’s main clientele is largely made up of guests from the US, UK, Australia and Europe.

Crisis lifelines
Meanwhile, Ms Crees is determined to bring her company through the situation, with the government helping to ease cash flow for the next two years.

“I think we’ll manage to tide through because our local government has been amazingly on their feet. For tour operators that have received no complaints over the last few years – our record is 16 years or so –  the government will give us back 80% of our security reserves, which is usually untouchable, in a holding account and we can use it as needed till 2022.”

For Mr Yong, business was brisk before the crisis. In January, the company was up year-on-year by almost 20% and expecting a good year. With bookings in February beginning to come down, it was “off by 15% overall for the first two months this year”.  

“Overall, we will be lucky if we’re only down by 30% but it could be as serious as 50- to 60%. I think we might be able to expect a rebound next year onwards. We’re hoping everything will fizzle out by May or June but I think that’s wishful thinking and is going to take a bit longer than we expect.

“But as I’ve said before, we will survive,” Mr Yong concluded with determination.

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