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The Past, Present, and Future of the Malaysian Tourism Landscape

The two main activities prohibited during the COVID-19 pandemic are movement and congregation – these are the two exact words that define tourism. UNWTO’s World Tourism Barometer indicated that tourism arrivals fell from 1.47 billion in 2019 to 399 million in 2020, signifying a 74.0 per cent decrease worldwide.

Prior to the pandemic, Malaysia’s economy was highly dependent on tourism, which was the third largest contributor to national GDP at the time, after manufacturing and commodities. In perspective, 2019 brought 25.83 million tourists, generating RM 84.1 billion in tourist receipts for Malaysia. The Gross Value Added of Tourism Industries (GVATI) further accounted for 9.1 per cent or RM240 billion of the country’s GDP in 2019.

Based on these statistics, Malaysia envisioned becoming the leading tourist destination through its Economic Transformation Programme and targeted to receive 30 million tourists and RM100 billion in tourist receipts in conjunction with Visit Malaysia 2020.

On 18th March 2020, all these aspirations came to a complete stop.

As a result of the Movement Control Order (MCO) and the closure of international borders, Malaysia’s tourist receipts contracted by 85.3% from RM86.14 billion in 2019 to a mere RM12.69 billion in 2020. The Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) reported that in 2020, 204 tourism-related companies were forced to shut down, including 109 hotels and short-term lodgings and 95 travel companies that ceased operations. The airline industry, meanwhile, incurred losses worth RM10.9 billion. Though Malaysia was not alone in registering negative growth in 2020 as a result of closing its borders, that year was deemed Malaysia’s darkest year for tourism.

So, where are we today?

Malaysia’s travel sector has seen gradual growth in domestic tourism since the relaxation of inter-district and inter-state travel restrictions. Even though Malaysia’s international borders officially reopened on 1st April 2022, it will take at least three years for tourism in Malaysia to return to pre-pandemic levels. On the bright side, the break from mass tourism has significantly reduced the anthropogenic ill-effects of tourism and its related activities on the environment, paving the way for the re-opening of borders to attract a niche of tourists seeking safe, clean, and sustainable destinations. However, the economic and social safety net of tourism and its stakeholders has been compromised since the onset of COVID-19. Consequently, despite tourism activities picking up speed again, the return of the workforce to their hospitality careers has been challenging.

What is the future for the industry?

The tourism landscape has been undeniably altered, perhaps permanently. In the foreseeable future, safety, space, carrying capacity, and memorable experiences will be in higher demand to cater to the needs and behavioural intentions of future tourists. This includes crisis management in all forms, from biological warfare like COVID-19 to  terrorism, climate change, and geopolitical issues. It is crucial to acknowledge all these aspects in the policy formulation process, along with continued engagement and collaboration with stakeholders, to ensure a resilient industry for the future. Such structural policy changes and evidence-based solutions address Malaysia’s readiness, recovery, reform, and resilience in facing future crises, which achieves tourism sustainability and ascertains the future success of tourism in Malaysia.


Figure 1: Pela’u fishermen selling their catch to tourist, Mabul Island, Semporna Sabah


Figure 2: Courtesy visit to Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture Malaysia (MOTAC)


Siow May Ling

Senior Lecturer,
Department of Landscape Architecture,
Universiti Putra Malaysia


Date of Input: 20/06/2022 | Updated: 20/06/2022 | uswahhasanah


Universiti Putra Malaysia
43400 UPM Serdang
Selangor Darul Ehsan