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Malaysian Tourist Guides Face Uncertainty In A Post-Pandemic Era

Malaysian Tourist Guides Face Uncertainty In A Post-Pandemic Era

New trends are emerging for tourism in a post-pandemic world, and tourist guides need to be ready to change and adapt.

Fernando Fong

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The tourist guide profession is one of the oldest, having been around for two and a half thousand years.

Today, tourist guides are one of the essential elements of the tourism industry’s success.

But the Covid-19 pandemic changed all that.

Two years of facing various challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic is not easy, let alone for tourist guides directly involved in the tourism industry.

Among them is senior citizen Wong Hing Tuck, for whom the pandemic has brought some new challenges, and he was unprepared.

Like the rest, he had to look for jobs to survive, and Wong ended up being a Grab driver.

The former chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Tour Guide Association said the industry had been affected since mid-February 2020 after the spread of the epidemic in China. 

Following that, bookings for tourist guide services were cancelled at the last minute.

Beginning in early March 2020, licensed independent tour guides under the association no longer receive any assignments following the implementation of MCO nationwide. 

Former chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Tour Guide Association, Wong Hing Tuck, on Covid-19 causing tourist guides to lose income. 

Whirlwind Changes

Wong added that before Covid-19, a freelance tourist guide could receive anything between five to seven assignments for a period.

The estimated income can be anything from RM4,000 to RM5,000 from these assignments. 

But Covid-19 put an end to all that.

Former chairman of the Kuala Lumpur Tour Guide Association, Wong Hing Tuck, on the trials and tribulations of tour guides during the pandemic. (Video: Fernando Fong)

The limited movement of people and the absence of tourists due to the Covid-19 pandemic forced industry operators to downsize their operations.

Wong said it is not an exaggeration to say that the disruption of the pandemic has made everyone change their life routines. 

tourist guides, in particular, saw their daily routine of welcoming tourists change utterly.

After many cancellations, especially by Chinese tour groups, tourist guides are out of work.

Government’s Additional Cash Aid Insufficient

Any effort initiated by the government is admired.

Still, one-off assistance of a few hundred ringgit, with several months in between, is undoubtedly not enough to support even the basic need of any family.

However, is this assistance sufficient to cover the life that may be affected for a month, three months, six months, or a year or may it continue longer?

Penang tour guide Philip Chai on the need for long-term and sustainable assistance for tour guides. (Video: Fernando Fong)

Also, tourist guides were burdened with issues such as:

  • Registered tourist guides not in the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) database.
  • Data not updated.
  • Lack of computer literacy.
  • Licenses that have just expired and licenses that are in the process of being renewed.
  • Licenses in the process of appeals or settlement of compounds.
  • Other categories meant that many could not qualify for assistance.

How can such a thing happen when tour guides are registered with MOTAC, and the ministry should already have a list of tourist guides?

For the record, it is not easy to become a registered tourist guide because one must attend courses and pass exams to pass and get a license.

Worse still, some said they never received the tourist guide’s one-off assistance despite being eligible.

The affected ones said they had contacted MOTAC many times, but there was no response.

When checked, their names are still not on the record.

Wong said that under the Economic Stimulus Package announced in March 2020 by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, a one-off payment of RM600 would be given to tourist guides. 

In January 2021, then Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said a one-off financial assistance of RM500 would be given to 14,000 tourist guides in the country.

Applications were extended until 15 March 2021 to ensure that eligible tour guides were not left out.

And then, in October 2021, under the 2022 Budget Initiative for Licensed Tour Guides, each of them would be given financial assistance of RM1,500, divided into two payments.

They would receive a cash payment of RM750 per month for two months (February and May).

However, tourist guides whose licenses had expired before or on 1 November 2021, and those who did not submit a license renewal along with payment of the processing fee before that date, were left out.

The handouts are subject to terms and conditions, which can be unfortunate for some tour guides. (Pix: Fuh.my)

This was followed by another RM500 one-off financial assistance to licensed tourist guides under the PEMERKASA+ 2021 Initiative in December 2021.

This financial assistance is only given on a one-off basis for each individual and is not given based on the number of license categories owned.

The assistance was to help the tourist guides resume their activities per the National Recovery Plan (PPN).

At the same time, Inap Desa (Homestay) operators received as much as RM1,800, while Spa and Foot Massage Centre (PUK) received as much as RM3,000.

A payment of RM9,000 was also given to Tour Guide Companies, Travel Agencies and Travelers (TOBTAB), and companies involved in Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program.

Is Tour Guide A Good Career?

Wong, who has been a tourist guide for more than 30 years, said that most of the tour guides under the association are independent tour guides.

Their income is based on the assignments they receive. 

The rest work under travel agencies with salaries paid regularly by their employers every month. 

Wong hopes that every state government will find an approach to help ease the financial burden of affected tour guides.

Taking the example of the approach taken by Penang, Kedah, Johor and Sabah, Wong wants the respective state governments to provide special assistance for tourist guides. 

Steps that can guarantee the survival of tour guides need to be discussed together between policymakers and those involved in related sectors. The importance of tour guides to the industry cannot be denied. Therefore, attention and consideration to this group is necessary and should also be given priority.

Veteran tour guide Wong Hing Tuck on tour guides being among the leading players in planning the development of the tourism industry over the years.

For example, the Johor State Government announced in May 2020 a special incentive under its Economic Stimulus Package 2020 for the tourism sector.

It was announced by Datuk Onn Hafiz Ghazi, Chairman of the Tourism, Youth and Sports Committee.

Johor distributed RM1,000 to 936 registered tour guides residing in the state of Johor, totalling RM936,000.

Tourism Is The Breadwinner For Many

In Malaysia, the tourism industry contributed 3.5 million job opportunities in 2018, 23.5 per cent of the total workforce. 

Of these, there was a drastic increase in tourist guides.

In 1972 it was reported that there were only 567 tourist guides, which increased yearly until reaching 15,363 in 2018.

In Taman Negara, some 170 nature tourist guides lived in a difficult situation after they lost their source of income due to the lack of tourists.

Chairman of the Pahang National Park Nature Tour Guides Association, Mohamad Anas Zainudin, said that the situation has been happening since December 2019.

The arrival of tourists decreased and worsened when the Movement Control Order (MCO) began on 18 March.

The source of income for all tourist guides comes from the arrival of tourists. They depend entirely on the assignments given by travel agents and the resort and Mount Tahan climbing activities. They were stuck in a very dire situation.

Chairman of the Pahang National Park Nature Tour Guides Association, Mohamad Anas Zainudin, on problems and challenges that adversely affect the tourist guides.
A tour guide taking visitors on a river cruise at Taman Negara in Pahang. (Pix: Fernando Fong)

Usually, the peak season is from June to September because of the school holidays in Malaysia and the tourist season in Europe. 

But it did not happen for another two years due to the Covid-19 epidemic that has hit the whole world.

Many catch fish every day to feed their family.

Accordingly, he appealed to the government to channel aid to tourist guides who help the country promote the tourism industry to tourists coming from within and outside the country.

Meanwhile, tourist guides in Taman Negara said they had lost their income since the spread of Covid-19, followed by the MCO.

They depend entirely on his income as a full-time freelance tourist guide; if there is no task, then there is no income. 

There have been no job offers for the longest time, and things only started to slowly improve after the Covid-19 travel restriction has lifted.

Things would take a while to return to normal even after the pandemic ended.

Expressing Gratitude

At the same time, tourist guides in the state expressed thanks to the Pahang government.

They are grateful to the state government and the Menteri Besar of Pahang, Datuk Seri Wan Rosdy Wan Ismail, for considering the plight of tourist guides and tourist boat operators who have been affected by the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic.

In January 2021, the Pahang government, through Tourism Pahang, allocated RM270,000 to help tourist guides and tourist boat operators.

This donation’s total of 450 recipients includes 254 tourist guides and 196 boat operators.

State Exco for Tourism, Culture, Environment, Plantation and Commodities, Datuk Seri Mohd Sharkar Shamsudin, said the aid amounted to RM600,000 by the end of 2021.

The donation recipients involved the National Park Nature Tourist Guide Association, the Pahang State Tourist Guide Association, the National Park Boat Operators Association, and the Tioman Island Tourist Boat Association.

Thinking Out Of The Box

After two years of losing their source of income, the government’s announcement of reopening the country’s borders on 1 April 2022 brought hope.

The government decided to open the borders as Malaysia entered the transition phase to endemic.

Among those who welcomed the new phase is Kuala Lumpur tourist guide Jane Rai.

Jane is the founder of Free Walk Kuala Lumpur Unscripted, a brand specialising in heritage walks in Kuala Lumpur.

She said opening the Malaysian borders is good news for her and her fellow tourist guides, and she hopes to see international visitors on her walking tours.

We waited two years for the border to finally open. There is still hope for us to find sustenance.

KL tourist guide Jane Rai on starting anew after the lockdown is over.

Jane said before the first MCO was announced in March 2020, her last tour group was European tourists.

Shortly into the MCO period, she decided to digitalise the in-person walking tours into a virtual version.

This has helped her generate income by promoting her virtual 360 tours when people cannot be on the street.

Tourist guide Jane Rai (left) giving a heritage talk at Petaling Street. (Pix: Fernando Fong)

While there was some aid from the ministry, she said many tourist guides have no source of income except for the ‘one-off’ assistance from the ministry.

This was because many relied on tours from local tour operators and online platform providers.

She said it is a burden as many tourist guides have no source of income except for a ‘one-off’ assistance from the ministry.

Helping Hand

In June 2022, the government agreed to extend the implementation period of license renewal fee exemptions.

The extension, which also applies to additional licenses, is for tour operators and tourist guides who use for license renewal until 31 December 2022, involving 3,419 tourism operator companies amounting to RM5.676 million.

MOTAC said the decision was based on the government’s concern for tour operators and tourist guides still affected by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The initiative is part of the support assistance from the government to help business continuity and help companies to get back up and continue their business post-pandemic.

With the extension, MOTAC hopes that qualified tour operators and tourist guides take this opportunity to enjoy the exemption.

Why Good Tour Guides Are Important

Despite the impacts of Internet on the tourism industry, tourist guides are still that all-important help for making memorable vacation moments.

Undoubtedly, some tourist guides are apprehensive that technology could ultimately replace the need to have a tourist guide altogether. 

But at the end of the day, the tourist guide has several leading roles to play that no app could replace:

The instrumental role includes providing direction, access, security and safety,
organizing, managing and controlling the group.

Tourists guides also decide on what the tourists should see and experience and otherwise.

Secondly, tourist guides play an interactional role, including managing relationships between locals and tourists.

They partake in different cultures that lead to understanding the local culture and
experiencing the daily life of the host community.

From a social standpoint, tourist guides maintain cohesion within the group and provide entertainment and humour while ensuring the tour stays orderly.

From a communicative perspective, tourist guides provide information,
knowledge and interpretation about different sites and information about the destination.


This story was produced under the Uncovering South East Asia Covid-19 Financial Stimulus Fellowship Program of Kiniacademy in partnership with the Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism and Tempo Institute.


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