Recovery in progress — slowly but surely?

As room rates have to be lowered to attract more clients, the more ‘exclusive’ hotels are now swarmed with rather loud locals

THE mood at Langkawi International Airport’s arrival hall was rather subdued. Unlike the good old days, when you had to deal with groups of “energetic and enthusiastic” tourists, especially from the Middle East and China, everything seemed to move in slow motion on that fateful Tuesday afternoon.

As the automatic door opened, one could sense that the airport had not been seeing that much activity lately. No more smell of sweaty travellers amid cheap perfume and deodorant. The air seemed cold and sterile.

The usual “welcoming committee” was not there either. The airport’s new standard operating procedures in conjunction with the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO) might have limited the number of people who could be inside the airport.

Sewa kereta, lima puluh ringgit (rent a car for RM50)!.

The lady at the car rental counter sounded a little desperate, one might add, as she waved her company’s brochures with pictures of cars that were on offer.

Apparently, for RM50, you’d get a humble Viva. Add another RM10, you’d be driving an Axia around the island. For RM80, you’d get a Vios.

Now fancy that! Just slightly over five months ago, renting a decent car could cost you over RM200 per day.

The situation got even more real at the nearly empty airport lobby. Almost all the shops and duty-free outlets were closed, save for the liquor and tobacco store.

Souvenirs? Chocolate? Perfume? CorningWare? Well, you might have to go all the way to Kuah town for those items.

The sense of desolation continued on the road towards Pantai Cenang. Alas, this would perhaps be the ideal trip for the most introverted of people and for those who really wanted some peace and quiet.

If you plan to go to Langkawi these days and expect some action in the evening, you’d be very disappointed.

The trendy area between Pantai Cenang and Pantai Tengah, a stretch that is lined with bars, bistros and clubs, was rather sullen and deserted during this particular visit.

“Well, this is still much better than during the MCO,” one Langkawi resident said. “In the past four months, there’d be lorries transporting furniture and items from shops that had to be closed for good on a daily basis. There were quite a number of properties on sale, too,” he added.

Pantai Cenang, which could be described as the busiest spot on the island, is rather dreary these days.

One could see masseurs sitting around outside their reflexology outlets and parlours whiling away hoping for some action. A lot of restaurants were closed, too.

“It was so quiet for four months since the MCO started,” a Langkawi native, who runs a shop that trades used books, said.

Almost all the shops and duty-free outlets are closed, save for the liquor and tobacco store during the writer’s visit recently

“What I like most though was how clean the beach and water were. It was like how I grew up here in the 70s. The water was just too clean and inviting. I could not help but sneak to the beach once in a while for a dip!

“We had to be smart and chose the right time to swim though, as the police were pretty strict,” he said.

The beach boys who used to peddle all sorts of activities along Pantai Cenang — banana boat ride, paragliding, jet ski and such — were on holiday themselves.

There were more fully-clothed people and Shariah-compliant dressers at the beach, while foreigners who used to “spoil the market” for domestic holidaymakers were nowhere to be seen.

The only foreigners you might see in Langkawi these days are mainly expatriates who have been living in Malaysia for a while, or those who are stranded with their tourist visas extended to the end of RMCO on Aug 31.

“Some of them are pretty broke too, and they have to find ways to survive while they wait for the international borders to reopen for them to get home,” one Langkawi budget retreat owner, who has quite a number of stranded tourists still cooped up in his place, said.

Some of the bigger and branded hotels were doing much better though. As room rates have to be lowered to attract more clients, the more “exclusive” hotels are now swarmed with rather loud locals.

Places like Pelangi Beach Resort and Spa, The Datai Langkawi, Tanjung Rhu Resort, The RitzCarlton, Four Seasons Resort, St Regis Langkawi and The Andaman — which used to be the getaway for the rich and famous — are now the resting place for slightly different demography.

“I guess we are luckier,” one hotel staff member said.

The resort he works in is now reporting at least 70% occupancy rate daily and runs almost a full house on weekends.

“Thank God that there has been no retrenchment at our resort so far. Even during the MCO, we would all come to work as usual even when we had no guest. I hope this upward trend will get even better,” he added.

Perhaps, among the saddest areas in Langkawi at the moment is the Perdana Quay where all the yachts and expensive boats dock. It looked a little run down and unkempt with undergrowth and grass that looked rather abandoned.

The Petronas petrol station nearby, which used to see long queues at its pumps and customers whizzing in and out of the convenient mart for titbits and knick-knacks, was not as cheerful. Heck, even the shelves were bare.

Still, it’s good to know that they could still survive despite months of no actual movement.

The same could be said about the cable car station as well as other places of interest. There was ample parking space at Telaga Tujuh, and looking for a table at the Laksa Ikan Sekoq stall near the airport was not that difficult anymore.

Ah well, life goes on. After all, tomorrow is another day…

Zainal Alam Kadir is the executive editor at The Malaysian Reserve.