As the Malaysian borders stay closed and cross-border travel not yet permitted, how can outbound travel operators eke out a living as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage tourism businesses?
By looking inward, advised Hamzah Rahmat, immediate past president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents.
And that inward inspiration for 18 Klang Valley travel specialists came during a recent fam trip to Penang, which introduced the group to many new and lesser known attractions and products in the state – some of which were not even known by the agents themselves.
The three-night fam trip was organised by Penang Global Tourism, after Hamzah, who is also a member of the Penang Tourism Economy Recovery Advisory Board, initiated it together with Yeoh Soon Hin, Penang State Exco for Tourism Development, Arts, Culture and Heritage.
Yeoh believes that the current crisis presents an opportunity to show that local destinations can be as competitive and attractive as international destinations. When some of the restrictions imposed during the pandemic were relaxed and inter-state travel was allowed, Penang proved to be the most popular destination for Malaysians.
The 18 travel agents from MATTA Kuala Lumpur Chapter posing at the entrance of Homestay Kampung Agong. And as per the new normal – masked! Photo Credit: SS Yoga
Besides being easily and quickly accessible by land, Malaysian travellers also took heart that Penang had managed to keep itself Covid-free for 100 days, although a recent flare-up of a few cases from a neighbouring state has slightly dampened sentiments.
Both Hamzah and Yeoh stress that while Penang offers amazing internationally-renowned food, a fantastic mix of culture and heritage, beaches and shopping, there are also other great products and destinations on offer that are new, less publicised and take into account nature, agrotourism and off-the-beaten track adventures.
“I would like to take this opportunity to encourage our visitors to discover other sides of Penang such as our Balik Pulau and mainland, where you will experience different wonders and aspects of Penang,” pointed out Yeoh.
Travel Weekly Asia's Malaysia correspondent SS Yoga also joined the fam trip for a look at the destinations that should be on travel agents' radar.
Seberang Prai, situated on the Penang mainland, is very rarely included in tour packages. But this trip uncovered some gems and one place that had all the travel agents enthused was Homestay Kampung Agong in Bakar Kapur, Penaga. It was only opened in August last year and is suitable for large groups and families.
View of Kampung Agong at arrival, which only shows the tip of offerings found at this village. Photo Credit: SS Yoga
At this rustic site, visitors get to see an actual padi and coconut farm with options for a homestay in eight units fashioned as traditional kampung houses. For day trippers, this sprawling 20ha destination also boasts vast vistas of golden yellow fields (if you’re lucky to be there just before harvesting season) which are dotted with many eye-catching installations and Instagrammable spots. And for just RM5 (US$1.20) per family you can also bring your food and have a picnic on the grounds.
Round it up with a shopping jaunt at the Design Village, in Batu Kawan, the only outlet mall in the northern region. For an overland trip, schedule a visit to the 9.7ha complex during the return journey to save on lugging around all that shopping.
Pulau Jerejak, on the eastern coast of Penang island, is another destination that caught the interest of the travel agents. One can do a day trip or spend the night as the 362ha island is operated by Jerejak Island Resort. A 10-minute ferry boat ride from nearby Bayan Lepas takes you to a mini-beach filled with Instagrammable installations and a beachfront food court with a kiddie park and gardens. With 72 rooms and chalets, the property does hark back to the resort style of the 70s, though it was more recently opened in 2004. However, the pool is where you swim, as the sea is prohibited – why, jellyfish!
This British-built structure, dating back to 1911, is part of the abandoned detention/prison centre in Pulau Jerejak. Photo Credit: SS Yoga
There are plenty of activities on the island but the draw is its history. You can book a four-wheel drive to tour the abandoned detention/prison centre and the processing centre. A leper colony was established on the island in 1871 until its closure in 1963. The graves of those who died there can be seen as you take that drive.
In 1969, a rehabilitation centre took over to house political prisoners and drug-related criminals, among others. Each detention block used to house around 60 inmates and they would have to sleep on the bare floors without any electricity provided. The centre was closed since 2000, but the abandoned buildings still stand.
The famous Monkey Beach and its coral sand, while the onslaught of a thunderstorm did not faze the intrepid Hamzah. Photo Credit: SS Yoga
Nature and adventure tourism are often overlooked in Penang, but the island is actually home to the world’s smallest national park. The Penang National Park is perfect for hikes and checking out the macaques (note: they can be overly friendly). It has two of the best beaches in the state, Monkey Beach, which boasts fine coral sand and an old tomb of an Achenese, and Turtle (Pantai Keracut) Beach, which has different shades of quartz sand.
Keracut is also the site of a bridge overlooking a very special site – a seasonal meromictic lake, which is one of only two in the world. Seasonally the seawater is trapped to form a lower lawyer of saline water with clear fresh water on the top. It’s the most studied lake, with unusual variations of flora and fauna but yet no one can predict when the meromictic phenomenon will happen.
At Keracut resides the meromictic lake, where seasonally a layer of seawater is trapped under clear fresh water on the top. Photo Credit: SS Yoga
The remote beach also sites a turtle hatchery and offers an amazing sunset, and if you’re there at the right time a moonset. A boat trip showcases the five different habitats there, including the mangrove area which gives you a close-up look of the birdlife in the area – think sea eagles and egrets – and ends at Kuala Sg Pinang on the Balik Pulau side of Penang, so it's overall a great tour to package.
Of course, elsewhere on Penang there are still many other attractions including the exciting family-friendly Escape theme park, and Audi Farm and Bicycle Tours in Balik Pulau to consider too.
Homestay Kampung Agong www.homestaykampungagung.business.site / +60 12 4817795 / [email protected]
Design Village www.designvillage.today / +60 4 5899888 / [email protected]
Jerejak Island Resort www.jerejakislandresort.com / +60 4 2938831 / [email protected]
Penang National Park wildlife.gov.my/index.php/en/public/2016-05-10-02-34-43/peta / +60 4 8813530 / [email protected]