By Lee San
107 days after the MCO was implemented on March 18, I "finally" got to board a plane again with my mic, as a tour leader! The thing is, even though I had been flying in and out for countless of times over the past 30 plus years, there was a melange of indescribable feelings churning inside my head this time…!?
Technically still in MCO, I set off for the long missed journey, taking with me 42 Malaysian travelers for the short flight from Subang to Langkawi. We were doing our bit to help revive the country's tourist industry. However, the spacious airport terminal looked eerily deserted. A strange feeling overwhelmed me. Perhaps the arrival of this 42-member group brought some intangible strength and confidence to the airport's ground staff, airline company, F&B outlets and souvenir joints. As a matter of fact, this trip created some unexpected spirit-lifting "firsts". It had never once crossed my mind that such an innocent-looking short domestic trip under the new normal could be such a big deal at all! A group member said in excitement: I don't want to be locked inside the cage any more. I want to do something to support our "cuti-cuti" initiative! What a touching display of enthusiasm in the midst of this dreadful pandemic!
As I was busy greeting my group members at the airport, a 7-year-old girl rushed towards me all of a sudden, hugging my leg and yelling spiritedly: Uncle Lee San! Uncle Lee San! It appeared that this little fan of mine couldn't quite control her overpowering excitement being able to travel again, and with me! As a matter of fact, I'm quite sure everyone in the group was just as overwhelmed being able to travel again after being cocooned at home for months. Having experienced the "total helplessness" and "war-like" trials in the form of the coronavirus lockdown, hopefully we have learned to gradually modify the lifestyle we are so familiar with to accept the unfamiliar, as we discover that we can actually live our lives in such a simplistic yet fulfilling way. Being able to travel out of town for holiday is something heart-warming and profusely satisfying. Perhaps we will learn to appreciate something only after we have lost it!
Firefly valued the group's support tremendously, and we were actually the first group to fly the airline post-lockdown. As a token of appreciation, they prepared a special gift for each of us, a small Firefly aircraft model. It's hard to imagine how an industry that would have expected some 1.5 billion visitors this year if not for the virus, would deliver itself out of the current doldrums. While we can just sit there waiting for the government's assistance packages, thanks to Lee San's effort to bring like back to the local travel industry, everywhere we passed by this time we saw ripples created that would resuscitate the dying industry, significantly boosting the tourist economy while creating new job opportunities. The two travel guides in Langkawi, along with the bus driver and the lady boss of RT Seafood Restaurant in Kuah town, said in unison: "This is our first group!" As if that is not enough, their faces were radiating with new-found confidence!
Perhaps some people still do not quite understand the unusualness of 2020, the protracted pause unseen before, and the ensuing catastrophic collapse of the world order, none of these matters any more now!
While I might appear contained and calm, I was actually overcome with anxiety deep inside. As a consequence, when I was standing in front of the bus in Langkawi with the microphone in my hand, I was on several brief occasions almost choked in tears. I shared with the group how each of us, including Chiong Pei Pei, had worked so hard to make this much anticipated trip a reality. This 3D2N trip was destined to be one truly unforgettable experience for all of us. Of course, we will never forget the "bold" attempt by each of you joining my group. Oh yes, each time I lead a group, I would take along my own mic. I never thought this thing could be put to good use again so soon in the face of the pandemic. Fortunately I wasn't too excited to start talking garbage!
In no way could I claim that this domestic tour group could save thousands of jobs in the industry. I was just trying to console myself or lift my own morale, but this significant "The First" has indeed broken our chains, allowing us to once again stand up for this industry with pride, which is absolutely a good start for our fellow industrial players to fight the virus together. In reality, many tourist business owners, travel agencies, tour guides, tour leaders and others have gone without any income for six whole months. Many have lost their directions, not knowing what to do being locked in for such an extended period of time. Perhaps very soon some will begin to give up hope!
The resort owner in Langkawi told me: the higher the expectations we have for the industry, the more disappointed we will get. As such, they were very grateful for the modest input from private companies like us to promote domestic tourism. I replied: That's because Malaysians are eager to do something to support the local tourist industry! They're keen to explore the many fascinating sights of this country like Mulu caves, the national park of Sandakan, our age-old forests, rivers and irresistibly wonderful nature. We want to see all these natural marvels and rainforests with our own eyes! Wanna go? Lee San will take you there!
Recommissioning my mic again after such a long break, we've come to unearth the many unexpected benefits from this "The First". At least the industry has taken the initiative to do something right during such a trying time. Oh yes, very soon this long missed mic will be passed onto the hands of all beloved brothers and sisters in this industry. I am looking forward to you coming back in full glory once again, as I have done!
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored two books.)