There is a certain charm to travelling in one’s own country. I have always believed that there is more one can see for themselves exploring their own backyard than they would flying across international borders. While low-cost flying did not ruin domestic travel, it drew Malaysians away from exploring their own country. This is not a Malaysian problem either. In the United Kingdom, plenty of seaside business owners lament holiday-goers who prefer spending summer in Spain, than they would in seaside towns like Brighton or Great Yarmouth.

Low-cost flying has made international travel possible. Once upon a time, international travel was for the upper-class and businesspeople. In the new millennium, it is accessible to all, creating the wave of backpackers who document their shoe-string expeditions on YouTube or blogs. But COVID-19 had almost decimated the travel industry. Airlines have mentioned higher fares in upcoming years due to strict SOPs in a time of economic uncertainty. There will be no mass flying anytime soon, and not on the same scale that was before COVID-19 struct the world.

In light of this, governments around the world are calling for their citizens to travel domestically. In Malaysia, the government’s economic stimulus package PENJANA offers tax breaks and financial aids up to RM 2.8 billion to support the tourism industry that has suffered during these past few months. This stimulus package is intended for the entire chain of the industry, ranging from hotels, transportation services, tours and many more who form the entire tourism ecosystem.

A return to domestic travel

When I was younger, my family would annually travel to two states, Pahang, and Johor. Both were places where my family grew up and held sentimental value. I remember the road-trips; hours-long drives with occasional stops at R&Rs, the radio forming the soundtrack of the journey and the changing of the landscape outside my window. I am romanticising this memory, yes. But this is no doubt the shared experience of other Malaysians who also used to travel domestically before the 2000s – family holidays in beachside towns like Pantai Batu Hitam in Pahang, or city weekends in Melaka.

I make it no secret that I am an advocate for domestic travel. Over the years, I had the opportunity to travel in different states, learning about different communities, their histories, and localities. For example, the East Coast, often shunned by tourism itineraries (save for the islands) holds so many gems in its unique cuisine, diverse communities, and unexplored histories. Smaller states such as Perlis often go under the radar but it also here where rural Peninsular Malaysia is best experienced. These places often go unvisited by local tourists.

In recent years, I have noticed an appreciation for domestic travel among youths. This is reflected in Facebook groups and curated Instagram accounts that share local haunts. The proliferation of Airbnb’s and local F&B economies also play a part in this return. But these voices still pale in comparison to Malaysians who aspire for a worldly bucket list; many who make it a point to travel internationally annually. There is nothing wrong with this. But this trend is also reflected in how the Tourism Ministry designed their ‘Visit Malaysia 2020’ campaign.

Tourism designed for foreign markets

Anyone who has commuted on the MRT would have at least seen the Discover Breathtaking Malaysia 2020 advertisement once. Running under 5 minutes, the video prominently features tourists who are foreign – a Caucasian backpacker, a group of China travellers and a European-looking couple. Based on this widely marketed advertisement, the target market for VM2020 were nationals of other countries. Where are the Malaysians, apart from serving foreign tourists?

Other video advertisements by Tourism Malaysia are no different. They feature beautiful vistas and exciting local cultures. But make no attempt at inserting the ordinary Malaysian as a person who would be interested to experience the same. So, when the Prime Minister and the Tourism Minister calls for Malaysians to travel domestically, I can only wonder where was this call in the years before?

Weaknesses in local tourism

Over the years, I have noticed several weaknesses in the domestic tourism infrastructure. I will elaborate a few here.

Firstly, is that local tourism sites are often not well maintained, nor do they excite. There is a lack of historical preservation and appreciation. This applies to district or state museums, where local history is embalmed in a 1980s aesthetic. This setup gives very little insight into local culture and history. Other examples are small towns with rich histories but are ignored, and so fall into obscurity. This is true for two towns I know, Kampung Papan in Perak and Kampung Titi in Negeri Sembilan. This is no fault of the locals. Its lack of maintenance may come from the fact that not enough state or federal budget is allocated to the upkeep or improvement of these sites.

Secondly, tourism is moving in the direction of self-directed travel. This is evident in a recent study done by Tourism Malaysia on domestic travel. 88.4% of those interviewed indicated they preferred to arrange their own travels and are not keen on tours. This same sub-group prefers to research and curate their own travel experiences. This trend is also in international travel where travellers find tours “limiting” and “restrictive”. This is not to say that there is no value in tour packages, but the government needs to be aware of this travel trend and redesign how they approach tourism.

Thirdly, when tourists prefer to travel independently, this also means that the local economy needs to be improved. Domestic travel benefits the livelihood of local communities directly. Think of the roadside warung, the non-descript budget hotel you stay in when travelling to another state, or independent entrepreneurs offering a candat sotong (squid jigging) experience. These are part of the local economy not usually captured under the net of Tourism departments. State tourism departments usually promote established local players, and these small businesses with modest budgets and amateur marketing power fall outside their radar.

It is these small trades that are part of the domestic tourism experience when locals do not follow the curated list by the Tourism Ministry or local state departments. During the MCO, local artists were initially left unsupported by the government. This group does not only include big-named actors and musicians, but also traditional craftsmen and cultural performers whose trades are forced to become secondary due to lack of recognition, support, and income. How much support does the Pak Ismail, a renowned Kelantanese gasing craftsman get from tourism and heritage agencies, apart from the rare media coverage?

Supporting local tourism

These are a few of the observed issues with domestic tourism. I am certain that industry players, travel writers and academics would be able to offer more extensive analyses on this area. As Visit Malaysia 2020 pivots domestically, I hope that both federal and state governments would be able to seriously consider Malaysians as valuable to the local tourism economy as much as they did with foreigners in the years prior.

There are several points of actions from this. Firstly, is to refocus their strategies to Malaysians, as much as they do with the foreign market. Secondly, is to redesign the Malaysian travel experience to suit the ‘pick and choose’ independent style of travelling. This means to improve all individual parts of the tourism infrastructure and its products, as opposed to focusing on the ones that make most profit and are most popular. Following that, is to allocate adequate federal and state budgets to encourage the preservation and upkeeping of local heritage and cultures. This benefits Malaysians in part of the forming of a national narrative, and by consequence, identity. History is a window to our future, and this intersection of tourism and heritage is often neglected.

So here, there is a market for domestic tourism. I have spent many good years travelling locally and I can certainly vouch for the fact that I have always enjoyed learning about Malaysia so much more than I have with other countries overseas. It is not just about national pride, but also about the implicit act of domestic travel will hopefully spur Malaysians to learn and understand one another, by engaging with those outside their urban bubbles. To interact with the very real lives, cultures, and histories of other Malaysians.

This article has been published in The Malay Mail.