KOTA KINABALU, March 26 — Sindy, a 35-year-old tour guide, has been extremely busy over the last two weeks since it was announced that the country would open its borders to international travellers again.

His boss had tasked him with getting her tour company back into operations, and the amount of work to restart the business after two years of hibernation is immense.

“It is actually a bit of a reverse culture shock. It has been two years and everything has been dormant. So it’s almost like starting up a new business again, but with a two-week deadline,” he said.

Sindy’s company is among Sabah’s top performing inbound tour companies, receiving hundreds of tourists every week at its peak, with a fleet of a dozen tour buses and a staff of over 100, including part-timers.

Since the pandemic began two years ago, more than 80 per cent were laid off or on some “sabbatical” and operations ground to a halt.

“I did not realise how much work has to be done, and we are not even sure how to prioritise because we cannot really estimate the arrivals. The inquiries are there. We are getting emails every day now, but we cannot proceed with bookings because people want to know the procedure, but nobody knows,” he said.

The result is chaos as he scrambles to rehire staff, spring-clean the office, get the vehicles running again, and renew the many licences required by the ministry.

“It is so much work and it seems like the urgency is getting to everyone. The government department is taking ages to approve things, Puspakom is backed up and many of the staff we are rehiring are now either not interested, or have to be trained to take on different roles,” he lamented.

Sindy’s complaints are a good problem to have though, as other companies claim that the announcement has not had any effect on their bookings or inquiries.

At least three hotel properties and two tour companies approached by Malay Mail said that the announcement has not significantly affected their business.

Sabah Association of Tour and Travel Agents (SATTA) chairman Datuk Seri Winston Liaw said that travel companies have been facing a slump recently following a sharp rise of domestic tourism at the end of last year

“After Chinese New Year, the market slowed down sharply, due to the rise in Covid-19 numbers. So hopefully, in April, we will see tourists coming back.

“It has been quite slow moving as we still don't know which countries, especially when the South Koreans are coming, but we think there is a start for the gradual influx of international arrivals,” he said.

He acknowledged that many companies have been on a rehiring drive, which can be a tedious process after more than 50 per cent of the industry were laid off in the last two years.

“For those solid companies, like Airworld Travel and Tours Sdn Bhd, we can easily call back 80 per cent of our manpower,” he said.

He said that the problem with the slow interest was likely due to the Omicron Covid-19 variant still being active, and also the lack of standard operating procedures (SOPs).

But logically, he said that regional tourists from Singapore and Brunei would make up the first batch of arrivals while the state works on getting more international direct flights back.

“It all depends on the flight schedules. If there are more international direct flights from various destinations after April 1, surely there will be an influx of tourists. AirAsia plays a very important role in Sabah’s tourism industry,” he said.

For others like Sindy’s company, the border reopening has reignited interest in the state and its many nature attractions.

“Since the announcement of the borders reopening from 1 April, we have had a significant increase in enquiries from international tourists.

“We have a few international guests already booked in for April,” said Ali Hochsetter, sales manager at Scuba Junkie.

The new bookings came from Australia and the United Kingdom, among others.

The company had some bookings in the past year from international travellers who came through the Langkawi travel bubble, but that is still a far cry from the brisk business that the state was used to pre-pandemic.

In addition to the new bookings, the company is also expecting to fulfil the many bookings that were made pre-lockdown, which they will now have to honour.

“We did not do any refunds so we are expecting the many pending bookings to come soon, we are prepared,” she said, adding that the company’s staff were ready and excited for business to take off again.

No detailed SOPs have been forthcoming since the announcement of the country’s borders reopening some two weeks ago.

Sabah also announced that it would likely fine-tune the SOPs to suit its own circumstances, which is likely to see a tightening of restrictions, due to the state’s proximity to the Philippines and Indonesia.

The state’s industry players, however, protested against this, saying it would further confuse and complicate matters.