November 24, 2023
KUALA LUMPUR – The “Jewel of Kedah” is losing its shine – the number of visitors to Langkawi has been shrinking since September, which means the island is likely to miss its targeted visitor arrivals this year by at least half a million.
Since September, the island famed for its Mahsuri legend, saw a month-on-month drop of almost 20% compared with last year.
The statistics were revealed to The Star by a source in the Langkawi Development Authority (Lada).
These monthly tabulations comprised arrivals at the jetty, marinas, airport and sea port in Langkawi, said the source.
Many Langkawi tourism players interviewed, who are unaware of the macro numbers, had voiced their displeasure about news reports which had labelled Langkawi a “ghost town”.
However, some of them conceded that there was a “great need” to rebuild Langkawi’s image as a global island hideaway.
“The first thing foreign guests would ask us upon checking in now is whether they can wear bikinis or short pants at the beaches.
“They are so worried about being publicly castigated for it,” said the general manager of a four-star resort who asked not to be named.
The general manager has been in the hospitality industry for 17 years and was posted to Langkawi three months ago.
“We would assure them that they can wear bikinis and shorts or swimming trunks on the beach. We have never received any instructions in black-and-white from the authorities forbidding this. But you can see the worried looks on their faces,” he said.
In September, Tourism, Arts, and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Tiong King Sing told the Dewan Rakyat that his ministry had received reports about non-Muslim travellers to Langkawi being stopped from buying alcohol and wearing shorts in public, besides other complaints about high food prices there.
However, Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Muhammad Sanusi Md Nor dismissed these complaints as baseless.
Meanwhile, according to the general manager, there was an even bigger fiscal barrier – the cost of flights.
“To bring your whole family from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi, the flight tickets alone can cost over RM3,000. That is almost twice the cost during pre-pandemic times,” he said.
The declining number of visitors to Langkawi is a stark contrast to last year’s scenario when the island saw a buoyant recovery after Covid-19 pandemic restrictions were lifted with 2,581,605 arrivals recorded.
It led to Lada projecting 3.2 million arrivals for this year.
Data provided by a Lada source showed that visitor arrivals exceeded the month-on-month comparison with last year in the first five months.
From January to May, monthly visitor arrivals were about 4% to 46% more than the corresponding months of the previous year.
But by June, the momentum was lost when Langkawi had 13% fewer tourists compared with the corresponding month last year.
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There were slight improvements in July and August but by September, the numbers began tumbling with 215,380 arrivals compared with last year’s 255,423. This represented a 18.6%. drop.
Last month, 195,105 visitors were recorded, which was a 17% declined compared with October last year (228,511).
Langkawi tourism players have their own observations on why the numbers declined.
“It is partly due to the bad social media content about food being expensive in Langkawi,” said Farly Khalid, an eco-tourism guide who takes visitors kayaking into the Kilim Geoforest Park.
Farly recommended that tourists explore the island based on their own online checks instead of limiting themselves to recommendations made viral on social media.
“If you choose those places, expect to pay more not just in Langkawi but anywhere else in Malaysia,” he said, adding that there were many rural restaurants that are cheap in Langkawi.
Businessman Datuk Alexander Isaac, who owns a yacht charter, restaurants and a resort in Langkawi, is projecting that more visitors would be back by the end of next year or early 2025.
“It will take time. I am angry with the negative publicity about Langkawi,” he said.
Isaac also stressed that there were no restrictions on alcohol consumption or attire at beaches.
“So we hope people who are not in Langkawi will stop saying negative things about our island and put off others,” he said.