Gaya Travel team catches up with the Chief Executive Officer of Langkawi Development Authority (LADA), Dr Hezri Adnan, on how the island plans to bounce back after the Malaysian government eases the nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) to contain the outbreak of COVID-19.
Dr Hezri has been in office as LADA’s CEO for two years beginning 4 April 2019. Erudite, soft-spoken and downright approachable, he was attached to the think tank Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia before joining LADA. Since he is an expert in environmental sustainability, Dr Hezri is posted to Langkawi to help convert the island into a showcase of sustainable development practices.
LADA is a government agency responsible for stimulating and facilitating the growth of Langkawi as a world class tourism destination. Since its inception in 1990, LADA has been serving different roles over the years. In the first decade, it established infrastructure such as roads and airport. Coming in after 30 years of LADA’s establishment, Dr Hezri realises that the strategic plans for the island need fine-tuning through the identification of gaps in its general development.“When I come in, I have to look at the investments in Langkawi, what is their status and where do we bring Langkawi in the next phase of development. It has been three decades, so where do we go from here?” he asks.
Bouncing back from the effects of COVID-19 pandemic
At the time of this interview, the island is just waking up from the nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) imposed by the Malaysian government to contain the spread of COVID-19. “This is a big challenge for the travel and tourism industry because the partial lockdown restricts movement of people from one place to another. So, with the MCO, we have seen serious decline in the number of tourists to Langkawi and I don’t think we are going to get back to the pre-COVID-19 level. 2019 was a good year when Langkawi received 3.92 million arrivals, a new record for the island. Then COVID-19 came knocking at our door,” remembers Dr Hezri.
70% of the island’s economy depends on tourism receipts. In 2018, Langkawi received RM1.7 billion, which flowed into the whole tourism chain comprising accommodations, food and beverages, transportation and more. That whole chain was disrupted due to the MCO. To get back to where it was, Dr Hezri reckons it might take six months to a year.
As a destination heavily reliant upon tourism, the effects from the COVID-19 pandemic make life difficult for locals. During the three months into the MCO, the island’s 200 tour guides and 80 beach boys who depend upon servicing tourists on Chenang and Tengah beaches have been out of job, including the pasar malam (night market) traders. “LADA consistently hold engagement series with the island’s industry players to ensure that the programmes planned are relevant to what they need. After hearing about the challenges local businesses face, the Economic Recovery Plan containing ten strategies and 30 action plans was launched on 31 May 2020 to address their plight. For instance, LADA decided to waive rentals for the businesses that occupy LADA’s assets. We even worked with the Langkawi Night Market Traders Association by pumping cash to its members to sell durian brought in from mainland and Penang to be sold in Langkawi because night markets were not allowed to open during the MCO,” Dr Hezri recounts.
The Economic Recovery Plan includes a series of training for the industrial players so that they are introduced to different facets of innovations in tourism such as digital marketing. When travel and tour agencies couldn’t operate, one of the players used its own assets to create an online travel platform called LangkawiRuncit.com and managed to get the big local supermarkets to be on board. “This is the kind of innovation we want to see, proof that we need to be creative to survive,” he stresses.
To diversify the island’s economy, LADA has ample land in Langkawi for it to experiment with contract farming. A piece of five-acre land can be divided up into half-acre plots and each can be assigned to an affected family or household to plant crops that generate quick returns.
LADA and the private sector also provide funding for the affected familiesto start growing mushrooms in mushroom houses, each costing RM15,000. In a month, the household that runs the mushroom house can get up to RM2,500 when they sell the mushrooms to the private sector. If the household chooses to sell the mushroom by itself, the price can fetch up to RM16 per kilo instead of RM7 per kilo. When the household adds value onto the mushrooms, for example by turning them into crisps, the household might earn more. LADA embarks on these projects to assist the locals and expects them to carry on as back-up even when tourism recovers in Langkawi, in case a calamity hits the tourism industry again.
Though Langkawi has sufficient tourism attractions, there are new ones being developed by the private sector such as the Eagle Nest located at the Langkawi cable car middle station. Apart from that, LADA is overseeing two major developments: one of them is the construction of a premium outlet on a piece of land in front of Langkawi International Airport to expand Langkawi’s retail options since the island is attracting more high end travellers. The outlet’s first phase will be launched in September 2021, while the other two phases will be developed at later stages.
The next development also lies on another piece of LADA-owned land. Located in Kampung Kuala Muda at Pasir Berdengung, this project is slated to be iconic, consisting of two hotels, where by one of them is constructed from recycled LRT cabins, at the same time functioning as the playground for the younger generation and hub for digital nomads since the area will be powered up by 5G connectivity. “For the past one year, we have been involved in selecting the right company and figuring out the legal and regulatory landscape with the state of Kedah about how to facilitate this development with win-win arrangement between private sector and government. That took time because it was not easy,” Dr Hezri confesses.
The developers of the above-mentioned projects are required to incorporate green elements. For the premium outlet, trees can’t be indiscriminately cut down because once it is completed, it can offer the experience of ‘shopping amongst trees’. Meanwhile, the development in Pasir Berdengung –to be renamed Chenang Bay – will be a closed-loop system in which everything is reused to reflect Langkawi as a sustainable destination. Chenang Bay will be a cutting-edge development that is simultaneously green and integrated with solar application.
For the past one year, LADA focusses more on cultural content for Langkawi to live up to its moniker as the island of myths and legends. “At the moment, the island does not have products that can be shared with the rest of the world when it comes to cultural performance and music, hence the cultural identity of Langkawi is not clearly defined. Yet, Langkawi possesses a wealth of culture and traditions, for instance if you were to witness the Machincang mountain range today, it has many peaks and three of them resemble the figure of a person lying down. This is unique to Langkawi that can be turned into a cultural product,” Dr Hezri observes.
More needs to be done when it comes to branding Langkawi through culture. “If you were to dig deeper, there are many stories to be told about Langkawi. In tourism, 25% of the experience is based on tourism product, while the other 75% lies in storytelling, but the island has not leveraged enough on these stories. We need to get our act together in polishing this asset, particularly when the island wants to attract new markets that are more demanding and discriminating. It is timely for the government and private sector to come up with a folk museum in Langkawi to celebrate the island’s history and traditions so that visitors can understand the island’s psyche and lifestyle,” he adds.
Along the same line, Langkawi has a traditional theatre called jikay, a popular northern peninsular Malaysia art performance. “The jikay performed in Langkawi is different than the ones performed in Kedah and Perlis because it represents multiculturalism of Langkawi through the melding of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Siamese influences. We want to polish the group that performs this and let the young learn from it. For this art form to bloom, it needs a platform to grow on, and the Langkawi Festival that we plan for 2021 fits the bill,” recommends Dr Hezri.
Tapping potential markets
Dr Hezri acknowledges that Langkawi faces increased competition from various destinations within the region such as Danang in Vietnam and Phuket in Thailand. Langkawi therefore must redefine itself by honing the island’s uniqueness so that it can be shared with the world. To do so, some soul-searching is required, especially in managing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What new markets do we need to deal with in this new normal? Is mass tourism over? These are some of the questions that we ask every day. And if we are not going to get three, four or five million arrivals in the future, what markets should we be attracting? Even Thailand is beginning to target Chinese tourists who are 34 years old and below since they don’t travel in large groups, at least not for now. I hope people will start coming to Langkawi in droves again, but what if that does not happen anymore? This is why we have to reconfigure tourism in Langkawi. It might probably take over a year for the travel and tourism industry to stabilise,” he ruminates.
“The Malaysian government is looking into the possibility of selectively opening our borders to certain countries like Japan, but then we have to work on bilateral agreements with these countries and iron out issues to see whether travellers from these countries need to be quarantined when they arrive in Malaysia. For now, Langkawi needs to depend on domestic tourists,” says Dr Hezri.
One way for the island to get back on its feet is by luring the luxury segment. Since there are 1,200 registered supercars in Langkawi, it is sensible to invite high-net-worth individuals to come to Langkawi and offer the island as a venue to test these supercars. In addition, LADA seeks to convert the island into Malaysia’s northern checkpoint for the international yachting community.
Dr Hezri admits that Langkawi should attract more travellers from neighbouring countries because too much emphasis has been put into markets like Europe and China. Thus, LADA is currently strengthening its targeting of new markets, without compromising on safety. “I am sure that the Malaysian government is working on arrangements with low-risk countries like Singapore and Brunei,” he points out.
Langkawi sets its eyes on Central Asia too. From December 2019 through January 2020, Langkawi received three chartered flights from Kazakhstan. This is a market with deep pockets that helps to fill up the accommodations on the island. The Middle Eastern market has a strong presence on the island as well.
Regarding promotions, Langkawi is focussing more on digital marketing, including videos, and looking at the possibility of using big data analytics to understand the kind of tourists that arrive almost on real time basis. “We are still in the demonstration period of 5G application in Langkawi with 36 use cases throughout the island. Some of them relate to security and connected to the control centre at the island’s police headquarters to monitor the activities on Chenang beach. We also conduct footfall analysis and have cameras installed at the jetty point and international airport to track whether the travellers are on the island for the first time or repeat visitors using facial recognition. These are all relevant because we want to know who comes to the island. If we can have real time analysis on where they are from and their behaviour patterns, we can target our marketing better. For example, if many local tourists who come to the island hail from a particular area in Kuala Lumpur, say Bangsar, then we can do more campaigns at that location. Langkawi should tap the outbound market in Kuala Lumpur, especially since the border is still closed and these travellers can’t go overseas. They ought to come to Langkawi instead and take advantage of what the island offers,” persuades Dr Hezri.
Further to that, the island is kickstarting the Langkawi Great Sale campaign, which runs from July until December 2020. “Since Langkawi wants to excel in becoming a weekend getaway destination of choice, LADA is working with the island’s industry players to come up with attractive packages. We will organise promotions at places like Bangsar Shopping Complex and press conferences in Kuala Lumpur to attract the outbound market,” he continues.
To lure the domestic market, many of the island’s accommodations are dropping their prices. An accommodation unit at the intimate property called Ambong-Ambong Rainforest Retreat Langkawi starts from nearlyMYR600 per night, while Tanjung Rhu Resort around MYR300 per night. “This is the best time for people to come to Langkawi and stay longer than usual. Workers who are able to work from home or wherever they are based should come to Langkawi, pick a suitable place, get connected and easily proceed with their work while enjoying the island,” suggests Dr Hezri.
Making Langkawi more sustainable
According to Dr Hezri, based on his assessment, a selection of viable sustainability projects can be applied on the island since it is a controlled environment.
“Whenever people talk about sustainability, they tend to think of renewable energy projects. LADA did consider introducing something similar on a large scale but that remains difficult. So, why don’t LADA apply renewable energy on its own building first? We are installing solar panels over the LADA car park and in front of LADA complex, based on a 20-year arrangement with the private sector. By doing so, we will have green energy and save on our electricity bill,” notes Dr Hezri.
Besides, Langkawi archipelago with its islands big and small is a treasure trove of natural endowments that are largely untapped. Various types of new eco-trails can be developed throughout Langkawi, which LADA is keen to establish with interested partners. As an example, LADA is partnering with an industry player who knows the lush Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) waterfall area intimately to create an eco-trail experience that can be packaged and sold at a premium to selected markets. However, rigorous documentation is needed for that to happen, not just in printed form but more on cataloguing the types of natural endowments available along the trail.
When it comes to cleanliness, LADA intendsto create a social movement in Langkawi. “We do receive comments that we need to improve our image when it comes to cleanliness. Somehow Langkawihasn’tdonewell on this front. Last week I met a group of beach boys who are themselves fascinating; they are not just the operators of jet skis and island-hoppingservices but they also run a recycling centre called KitaKitar (meaning ‘We Recycle’) that they initiated themselves, therefore government should support and grow this,” Dr Hezri reveals.
To maintain the island’s cleanliness, LADA needs to influence the pattern of behaviour by asking why people leave their garbage next to the bin instead of placing it inside. Dr Hezri posed this question to the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp), including whether the company has seen improvements in people’s behaviour when disposing their waste. The company affirms this: in the past, especially in the villages, residents will simply place the garbage somewhere outside of their houses (out of sight, out of mind), but now they take the effort in placing their garbage into the big bin by the roadside.
However, some still struggle in placing their garbage into the bin by the roadside because they claim the bin is too high; whenever they lift up their garbage, the unpleasant smell passes their noses, so they would just leave it by the bin. Some would even ride their motorbikes and chuck the garbage aimlessly rather than placing it properly inside the bin simply because they can’t stand the smell. Similarly, among the families who stay at the stratified residences on the island, parents would ask their children to throw the garbage into the bin, which can be difficult to reach. To tackle this issue, the right approach might be to look at the design of the bin itself.
Dr Hezri agrees that the carrot and stick approach should be enforced when it comes to maintaining cleanliness on the island. Administering the stick through fines or penalties is necessary, particularly at the sites where LADA has full control like Dataran Lang. “To get the message across, we need to be strict. I would like to believe that awareness towards cleanliness and environment among locals has increased, but the movement that we are trying to groom needs to be seen as cool so that people will want to be part of it. That is what I learned from the beach boys because they have turned recycling into something trendy and able to motivate the younger generation to be part of the movement,” he clarifies.
For Langkawi to increase its residents’ environmental awareness, LADA needs to start with the young. There are around 17,000 school children in Langkawi, and LADA can reach them through the schools’ Geopark or environmental clubs. As a matter of fact, some of the Geopark clubs are readily connected to LADA’s Geopark division.
“Through the Langkawi UNESCO Global Geopark network, we have 200 ambassadors and we organise geosite clean-ups. This is where we can connect with the larger groups in cleaning up the island alongside the private sector. Before the lockdown, we brought in Coca Cola, because I believe dollars make sense. Officials from Coca Cola came a few times and they have identified and planned the vendors to collect their plastic bottles, clean them up and process them for recycling. The waste collected needs to have value for it to be treated accordingly,” explains Dr Hezri.
“We also have Trash Heroes on the island. Some of the island’s big hotels are keen on this initiative, and they have set aside CSR funding for clean-ups. But what has been lacking in the past is an entity to get everyone together on the same platform. I am taking the opportunity from the COVID-19-induced crisis to remind the industry players that once destinations reopen, tourists will become more vigilant and selective, therefore safety and cleanliness are imperative. I am using this as an encouragement to get people to work together. In fact, some of the hotels have indicated that they are willing to become the hub for the areas surrounding them. But LADA needs to be there as well to make things happen,” he adds.
A loose association of asset owners in Langkawi met recently and showed commitment towards the construction of a large fish statue made from thrown away plastics to generate awareness among the public concerning pollution and environment. LADA is rallying everyone together to fund this initiative, so that when Langkawi opens up to international travellers, it can stamp its mark as a clean, sustainable place.
But more can be done in terms of sustainability. “The Langkawi archipelago is among the most picturesque in the region. If you look at the historical records, from as early as the 13th century, people have been acknowledging Langkawi’s beauty. In fact, the word langka means ‘beautiful’ in Sanskrit, so it is right for this place to become a hub or centre for global environmental conferences. In fact, it is already well poised for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE),”Dr Hezri beams.
That being said, it is disconcerting to learn that Langkawi consumes 320 litres of water per capita per day, the highest in Malaysia, compared to Penang at 260 litres. This is attributed to a host of issues, one being leakage or non-revenue water. “The other reason is because there over 200 lodgings on the island that are registered with MOTAC, but if you add other types of accommodations with private pools found on metasearch engines like Agoda, the number could be as high as 500, some even say close to 1,000, thereby raising water consumption,” mulls Dr Hezri. It should be noted that 45% of Langkawi’s water supply is sourced from the island, while the remaining 55% is supplied through submarine pipeline connected to the mainland. As such, there is a scope for rainwater harvesting on the island.
One more thorn on the island’s side is marine debris – Langkawi witnesses much of this floating in the waters. “I am still scratching my head trying to figure out how to handle this because it is hard to predict where the debris originated and where it would appear. A bit of technology should help and this is where we can work with universities to see how we can tackle it soon,” he mentions.
Langkawi in the next few years
To attract more tourists in the long run, Dr Hezri insists that Langkawi needs to raise its finesse and professionalism, which means improving its level of service. “Post COVID-19 will become the survival of the fittest, so those who are not on par with the expectations of the new markets will be left out. LADA appeals to the island’s travel and tour agents to be more professional and knowledge-driven byproviding quality services to the people who come to Langkawi so that we can increase the number of repeat visitors,” he advises.
Another area for improvement is to encourage all industry players in Langkawi to become legal. “The informal sector operating in Langkawi is significant. When it comes to licensing, if you don’t get the proper development orders and necessary paperwork in place, you have to pay a higher insurance premium for your hotels. Since you don’t comply with regulations, you will be off the grid and don’t follow the mainstream and latest updates. When situation like COVID-19 pandemic hits the industry, it would be difficult for the authorities to assist you because you haven’t been complying from the beginning. My hope for Langkawi in the next three to five years is that the informal sector will be legalised so that LADA can better organise the sector towards higher standards. Recognition will eventually come when we manage to do that,” Dr Hezri asserts.
“When I first came here, the Malaysian Association of Hotels complained to me that business had dropped 20% to 25%, but when we looked at the arrival figures, we noticed they were spiking up. Many new accommodations and lodgings on the island – though good for the economy since many are owned by locals – need to be legalised. This is where the government can come in and provide a leeway or flexibility for these lodgings to go fully legal. Maybe when they submit their as-built plans to the municipality council, they are given the option of paying it over a period of ten years as opposed to one lump sum, which might burden them. If we do that, consequentially these lodgings can afford to build better facility for sewerage, and cleanliness will come to the picture. This is crucial to maintain Langkawi’s image. Hence if we do this, in the next five years, we will be on track for a better future,” he foresees.
“We also would like to have a situation where a group of Langkawi travel and tour agents can become an aggregator likened to a destination management company (DMC) on par with some players in Kuala Lumpur so that they can interact with the markets directly and do tactical marketing. To secure its survival, it is vital for Langkawi to ratchet up its level of service and offerings,” concludes Dr Hezri.
From this interview, Gaya Travel Magazine believes that Langkawi has the resilience to pick itself up, dust itself off and continue forging into the future with its integrity and confidence intact, as long as it continuously improves itself to remain relevant on world stage…