ALTHOUGH travel for tourism is allowed under the targeted bubble travel between states under the recovery movement control order (RMCO) effective from March 10, the continuous closure of international borders eventually leads the tourism industry to take time to recover from the health crisis.
In an effort of bridging the urban-rural divide in the country, agrotourism would be the way forward for the tourism industry players to protect their economic livelihoods as well as the rural dwellers.
According to the World Tourism Organisation, agrotourism “involves accommodation being offered in the farmhouse or a separate guesthouse, providing meals and organising guests’ activities in the observation and participation in the farming operations.”
A rich cultural heritage in Malaysia implies that the tourism sector still could re-strategise their existing approaches, attracting visitors to explore the unleashing potential of rural areas.
The National Tourism Policy 2020-2030 stated that agrotourism is one of the sustainable forms of tourism. Not only it would add value to agriculture as a rural economic sector through tourism, but agrotourism also boosts the creation of rural entrepreneurs and fosters the consolidation of vibrant rural tourism corridors.
Through agrotourism, the visitors would have greater cultural awareness with agricultural areas, agricultural occupations, local products, traditional food and the daily life of the rural dwellers, as well as the cultural elements and traditions of the local communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have substantially restricted people’s movement to travel across borders freely. Nevertheless, it has given Malaysia the chance to reduce socioeconomic disparities among Malaysian states through digital technologies and applications.
Following the implementation of the movement control order (MCO) nationwide since March 18 last year, social media channels have become the advertising medium for rural traders and farmers to look for buyers.
This can be seen when Lazada assisted farmers based in Cameron Highlands in selling perishable items such as fruits and vegetables via its e-commerce platform. Lazada’s effort is laudable as it helps to reduce unnecessary food wastage besides avoiding disruption in the agricultural production and food processing chain.
The recent re-introduction of inter-district travel in most Malaysian states provides a chance for the Government to strengthen rural areas promotion and management. In turn, it would generate a source of income among the small agricultural households based in rural areas while still stressing the importance of all Malaysians in observing standard operating procedures (SOPs).
Up to date, for states that fall under conditional MCO (CMCO), tourism activities are limited to 50% of the capacity of the premises. On the other hand, states that fall under RMCO could operate at full capacity by ensuring the physical distancing and temperature checks of visitors at all times.
Therefore, the targeted approach from the Government in combatting the pandemic not only provides the chance for local tourists to engage with the rural lifestyle and farming experience during the new normal, but it would also assist tourism industry players weathering the storm.
On March 17, the Government announced a one-off cash assistance of RM600 for 4,000 homestay operators registered with the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) through the RM20 bil Strategic Programme to Empower the People and Economy (PEMERKASA) stimulus package.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s idea in developing a one-stop agrotourism centre at Sengkang Batu 18 near Bukit Gambir, Johor would provide visitors with the experience to get dirt between their toes and understand the challenges as a farmer. Visitors also could harvest the vegetables and fruits and cook them besides having the breathing space to meditate, get in touch with nature and release stress.
Besides that, Kilan Agriculture Park, Labuan also could be explored by Malaysian citizens. It is a place that provides accommodation and leisure facilities for tourists, a camping site and recreational activities for schools, and a training centre for farmers and agro-based industry entrepreneurs.
Visitors could obtain agricultural technology information and “agri education”; attend courses, trainings or seminars; or have recreation and leisure and community activities.
In addition, agrotourism also enables hotels and restaurants to connect with local farmers, providing guests with fresh and locally produced ingredients while supporting neighbouring agricultural communities. During the food preparation process, hotel and restaurant guests could accompany on-site naturalists and chefs sourcing the rainforest for fresh ingredients and cook afterwards.
Meanwhile, for tourists to feel the joy from agrotourism, the Government has to develop a network of tourism corridors (ie, major overland roads, waterways, sea or air routes) that traverse the urban and rural areas of Malaysia.
This is as improving travel accessibility would provide convenience for travellers to visit all agrotourism sites, experiencing the essence of Malaysia’s agrotourism products and services.
It is also crucial for the Government to work with the private sector in rural areas. Private sector participation would attract higher value investment, promote agrotourism related activities as well as enhance employability through knowledge enhancement and skills training.
Hence, for Malaysia to recover its tourism sector from the fallout brought about by the pandemic, EMIR Research has some policy recommendations for the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MOTAC) and Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industries (MAFI) to consider:
Attracting agrotourism investors by promoting and emphasising the uniqueness, strengths and development opportunities of Malaysia’s agrotourism sites;
Consolidating research through the re-establishment of educational research centres in selected agrotourism sites through partnerships with local universities and NGOs;
Encouraging variants of the homestay concept by guiding providers to offer a mix of ‘live in’ homestays, annex type homestay, kampungstay, farmstay etc. according to the needs of specific market segments;
Marketing and promoting agricultural activities to the gen Y, youth associations, school and university groups and rural families; and
Developing a comprehensive insight on Malaysia agrotourism under the existing Malaysia Tourism website.
By cultivating the cultural heritage through agrotourism, Malaysia would be able to revive the rural tradition besides providing a stable revenue stream among the rural dwellers.
Amanda Yeo is a Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.