Apple Vacations founder Datuk Seri Lee Ee Hoe turns crisis into opportunity by switching to selling imported high-end fruits as nations across the world impose lockdown measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Malaysia’s travel agencies seek lifeline

Hazlin Hassan
Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur

They turn to selling foodstuff like fruits and even plots of land online to keep afloat as borders stay shut.

Malaysia’s travel agencies, hit hard by the collapse of the tourism industry due to the Covid-19 pandemic, are turning from selling ski and safari tours and packages to popular destinations like Paris, to trading in fruits and other consumer products online to solve their cash-flow problems.

Apple Vacations, for instance, offered holidaymakers a wide range of travel packages around the world, from ski trips in South Korea to safaris in Kenya, before the pandemic struck.

But after Malaysia closed its borders in March last year and instituted a ban on leisure travel, it has been forced to suspend its 200 tour packages and find new ways to sustain its business.

“To heal the wound, we started selling premium fruits from Japan, Korea and Australia, gifts and tidbits from Japan, and Japanese wagyu beef and dried scallops,” Apple Vacations’ group managing director, Datuk Seri Koh Yock Heng, told The Straits Times.

After Malaysia closed its borders in March last year and instituted a ban on leisure travel, travel agency Apple Vacations – forced to suspend its 200 tour packages – has switched to selling imported fruits and other products online in order to sustain its business. PHOTO: APPLE VACATIONS

Meanwhile, with haj and umrah trips cancelled amid the pandemic, travel agents under the Umrah and Haj Travel Agencies’ Association (Papuh) launched an online marketplace in January to sell dates imported from Saudi Arabia, perfumes, fresh poultry, cakes and even plots of land to generate new sources of income.

Its online marketplace goes live on Facebook every Wednesday.

“Papuh For Business was set up because our members were suffering from a lack of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Papuh secretary Jeffri Sulaiman told ST.

Previously, Malaysia sent 31,600 haj pilgrims to Mecca annually.

“Demand has been great,” said Datuk Jeffri, adding that the top seller on the marketplace is Ajwa dates, with over 20 tonnes sold.

One seller was seen advertising land for sale from around RM29,800 (S$9,800) per lot, as well as private yacht charters.

Industry players are urging the government to come up with a targeted rescue plan for tour and travel agents amid the ongoing pandemic and bleak forecast for travel.

“Tourism businesses are currently in extreme distress due to the very fragile and uncertain business environment, expected to continue late into 2021,” Malaysia Association of Tour and Travel Agents’ president Tan Kok Liang said in January.

A total of 95 tourism agencies and tourism activity operators have closed down, while others have seen their incomes affected.

Datuk Tan said earlier this month that Malaysia’s over 5,000 travel agents have been badly hit, with thousands of tourism vehicles left idle.

The tourism industry suffered an estimated loss in revenue of more than RM100 billion last year.

Since last Wednesday, travel is allowed only between states that are under the recovery movement control order – Perlis, Melaka, Pahang, Terengganu, Sabah as well as the federal territories of Putrajaya and Labuan.

Travel agents can only wait for the travel ban to be lifted. But there are hopes that this can take place soon as Malaysia rolled out its vaccination programme late last month.

“We hope that Malaysian borders will reopen and that our members can take pilgrims for haj again this year,” said Mr Jeffri.

Apple Vacations’ Mr Koh said: “People are still eager to travel, as it is a part of human lifestyle. Tourism will return. It is a matter of time and made possible only when international travels take off. As an outbound player in this sector, I believe the hope for the future is still there.”

Published in THE STRAITS TIMES | MONDAY, MARCH 15, 2021