Act quickly to resolve worker shortage in tourism sector

IN the first half of 2022, the Asean member states cautiously opened their borders as infection rates subsided. But how well has the grouping done in opening its borders?

According to ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, the Asean Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework did not play an effective role in promoting seamless cross-border travel.

As a region, the adoption of measures was too slow, too cautious, and not coordinated. Asean members did not adopt a standardised arrangement.

Individual countries acted unilaterally to get rid of cumbersome travel procedures. It seemed too difficult to get everyone to agree on the same standards and procedures.

In January 2022, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments to accelerate the relaxation of travel restrictions and enable quarantine-free travel, arguing that stringent measures had not prevented the spread of Covid-19.

In the same month, the World Health Organisation recommended the lifting or relaxation of international traffic bans as they did not provide added value and continued to cause economic and social pressures.

And proof of Covid-19 vaccination will no longer be required for international travel.

From the second quarter of 2022, countries started to drop travel restrictions.
The sharp rebound in travel caused an acute labour shortage in the aviation industry.

Airports and airlines were unable to cope with massive numbers of passengers. Travellers faced problems of missing baggage and flight cancellations.

Some airports, like London's Gatwick and Amsterdam's Schiphol, had to limit the number of flights per day because their staff were unable to cope.

Airports, airlines, and even caterers are now scrambling to hire new staff.
The mismatch between supply and demand is expected to spill into the first quarter of next year, according to IATA's estimates.

What about former aviation industry workers? Many refused to return because they have found work elsewhere.

After more than two gruelling years of pandemic outbreaks and lockdowns, the tourism industry is naturally looking forward to a resurgence.

But the industry may not rebound to pre-pandemic levels because of strong headwinds.

Some factors that dampen optimism are higher costs of travel and reduced spending power.

Airfares have increased with the higher fuel and operating costs. Flight tickets can cost anything between 25 per cent and above 100 per cent more than in pre-pandemic days.

Inflation is driving up the cost of living and eroding the spending power of households. After the initial euphoria of the freedom to travel, people may prefer to stay home or travel domestically.

The World Bank recently warned of a global recession brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic and worsened by the Ukraine conflict.

The tense geopolitical situation in the West and the Ukraine-Russian war are having effects far beyond Europe.

The war-induced dislocations and the sanctions imposed on Russia have created energy and food shortages, pushed up the prices of oil, gas, food, fertilisers and raw materials, and affected international flight routing.

These problems compound those caused by the pandemic.

The dampened economic prospects, rising costs, coupled with lower disposable income and higher unemployment, are negative factors for travel.

There could be a silver lining for destinations in our region if Europe and Japan face a serious energy crunch during the winter months. The region may see a surge in tourists from these countries trying to escape the cold.

There is a big challenge for policymakers and industry players to improve standards so that workers are more adaptable, resilient and technology-enabled.

This will include adopting a more robust certification process, and skilling and reskilling programmes.

The pandemic has hastened the pace of transformation of jobs towards greater digitalisation.

A holistic strategy is required to bridge the gap between the supply and demand of workers who are equipped with digital skills, which is particularly crucial in small and medium-scale enterprises that account for over 90 per cent of Malaysia's tourism business.

If this is not done, the tourism industry can hardly face the impending storm and meet the high service standards that tourists have taken for granted.

The writer is a professor at Taylor's University, Faculty of Social Sciences and Leisure Management and secretary-general of Asean Tourism Research Association

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