By YS Chan
THE first annual consumer travel fair organised by the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS) was in 1987 and expanded into a biannual fair from 1998. At its height, NATAS Fair attracted around 100,000 visitors each time these 3-day exhibitions were held.
Thirty years ago, the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (MATTA) decided to emulate NATAS and held its first annual consumer travel fair in 1991. The Kuala Lumpur MATTA Fair became a biannual event from 2001 and later went nationwide to meet demand.
The March 2019 KL MATTA Fair featured 1,364 booths set up by 272 organisations, attracted a record 113,685 visitors and registered RM220 mil in sales. As space was limited at the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC), MATTA had to deal with demand exceeding supply issues.
But today, like all other trade and consumer fairs around the world, MATTA Fair had to be cancelled since last year because of the pandemic. Instead of abating this year, global COVID-19 infections hit a record high of 825,694 new cases in a single day on Jan 8.
Understandably, MATTA Fairs cannot be held as long as the pandemic is raging in all its fury. Sadly, prospects are getting dimmer by the day. Hence, decisive intervention by the Government is crucial in preventing further losses of tourism businesses and jobs.
While MATTA Fairs are well-known, the association was also active in both local and international tourism. For example, its current and past presidents additionally served as president in the Federation of Asean Travel Associations (FATA).
FATA is the umbrella body for all national travel associations within Asean. The combined number of travel agents under FATA members exceeds 7,700 serving a population of over 622 million people. The emphatic success of MATTA Fair was envied throughout the Asean region.
MATTA was running like a loud Formula One racing car, powered by profits from MATTA Fairs. In recent years, properties were purchased to house its state chapter offices nationwide. Its headquarters is in KL at Wisma MATTA, which was bought for RM3 mil in 2010.
Operating with full secretariat, MATTA had been the envy of non-governmental organisations. It was no surprise that aspiring members jostled for elected positions in successive annual general meetings whenever elections were held biennially.
Just as the pandemic had steamrolled everything in its path, it had also taken the wind out of MATTA’s sails. Making attempts to rescue its members or salvage the travel industry is like swimming against the tide that is more like a tsunami. It is not only futile but suicidal.
Until the rates of COVID-19 infections are down to a manageable level at home and in countries where Malaysians can visit and their citizens can enter our country, it will be premature to promote international travel when flights can be abruptly cancelled, or borders closed overnight.
However, the next KL MATTA Fair must be held in September even if our borders remained closed for non-essential travel. As promoting domestic tourism alone without overseas travel could be lossmaking for the organiser, all parties ought to chip in to lessen the burden.
This is especially so when the main beneficiaries of domestic tourism are local hotels and private residences, food and beverage outlets, theme parks and attractions, entertainment and public transport operators. The bulk will be raked in by retailers but very little for tour operators.
This is because overwhelming number of domestic visitors drove their own vehicles resulting in automotive fuel being the second highest expenditure after shopping. Those that used public transport booked their own flight, ferry, train and bus tickets, and also accommodation.
Only in places where public transport is scarce and too dicey to arrange upon arrival will domestic tourists opt for tour packages, especially to secluded natural sites. But the market for ecotourism is relatively small compared to mainstream tourism.
For many Malaysians, the jungle-clad mountains are within sight daily if one were to gaze at the horizon. In past MATTA Fairs, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) was unhappy whenever overseas tour packages were more popular than domestic.
While it is true a more relaxing holiday can be found at many of our world-class resorts and hotels back home, most Malaysians prefer to travel overseas to experience different sights, sounds, smells and tastes.
But with inter-district and interstate travel banned, and international travel not an option, locked-down Malaysians would be thrilled just to move out of their neighbourhood, making domestic travel sexy.
Hence, if the next MATTA Fair is organised for September, it should be participated by all state tourism organisations so that smaller tourism industry players that survived in their states are given free space to sell in the fair, as many customers seek assurance directly from suppliers.
Tourism Malaysia, the national tourism organisation, had always lent strong support to MATTA Fair, which was the most visible platform that tourism flourished in this country. Apart from visitors and exhibitors, MATTA Fairs also energised the entire tourism industry.
While many industry players have fallen by the wayside, MATTA Fair cannot be allowed to cease, as it is both the barometer and catalyst to spark the revival of our tourism industry.
As such, Motac must convince the National Security Council to guarantee in advance that the KL MATTA Fair can be held in September, if the association wishes to do so, under the strictest standard operating procedures if need be, regardless of the rate of infections around that period.
And if international travel can resume by the beginning of next year, then the March KL MATTA Fair in 2022 will offer both domestic and overseas tour packages but at a reduced scale. Many people have lost businesses or jobs, or have their incomes reduced by the pandemic.
For many years, traffic around PWTC were often in gridlock whenever KL MATTA Fairs were held. Visitor numbers to MATTA Fairs over the next few years will indicate how well tourism is recovering.
Those who feel traditional fairs are unnecessary as shopping could be done online are in the same boat as those who think they can see the world by looking at Google Earth or Street View, complemented by vlogs for sound and commentary.
But real life can only be experienced using the five senses. A change of environment is needed to enrich life and nourish the soul. Over the years, millions of people have visited MATTA Fairs. One thing they have in common was, upon entry, they could feel the magic in the air. – Feb 14, 2021
YS Chan is Asean Tourism Master Trainer for travel agencies, master trainer for Travel & Tours Enhancement Course and Mesra Malaysia (both programmes under Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture). He is also a tourism and transport industry consultant and writer.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.
Photo credit: MATTA Fair KL’s Facebook