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Jakarta Post

Tour guides hit hard as COVID-19 strangles tourist destinations

  • Riza Roidila Mufti

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, March 18, 2020   /   02:03 pm
Tour guides hit hard as COVID-19 strangles tourist destinations Aerial view of Padar Island in between Komodo and Rinca Islands near Labuan Bajo in West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara. (Shutterstock/File)

On a normal day, 58-year-old Agustinus Bataona, a tour guide in West Manggarai, East Nusa Tenggara (NTT) province, would be quite busy leading tourists from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and Europe on his Komodo Overseas Tour.

Usually in a single month, he and his colleagues conducted five to seven tours to explore Komodo Island and the beauty of the surrounding islands. Meanwhile, they handled three or four tour packages, including overland trips, per month. On a busy day, he and his colleagues often met cruise ships that had between 1,000 and 1.500 tourists on board.

“But that was before the COVID. Now, everything is so different. It is very quiet, nothing to do. In February we only handled two tours, while in March, there are none,” Agustinus who is also the regional NTT head of the Indonesia Tour Guide Association, told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

As fears over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus grow, significantly fewer tourists are visiting major destinations in NTT, such as Labuan Bajo, Komodo National Park and Flores. To date, about 45,000 tourists have canceled their plans to visit the world-renowned destinations from January to May.

“This definitely affects the livelihoods of the tour guides in East Nusa Tenggara, especially on Flores and Komodo. We lost our daily income because tourism is our main source of income,” said Agustinus.

Agustinus said  at least 511 licensed tour guides in NTT are affected by the cancellations. Because of them, many tour guides have to stay at home.

The secretary-general of the Indonesian Travel Agents Association (Astindo), Pauline Suharno, who is also the director of Elok Tours, said there are many tourist workers at the grassroots level who have been indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused numerous cancellations.

In addition to guides, other workers who rely heavily on the tourism industry for their livelihoods, such as tour drivers, are also in difficult circumstances, she said. Meanwhile, Pauline said many travel agencies have to “reorganize” to reduce their employee numbers for efficiency.

“Some implement unpaid leave; there is no hiring of contract workers and there is no new recruitment. Job termination cannot be avoided if the condition remains the same or worse,” Pauline said on Thursday. 

Indonesia Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI) chairman Hariyadi Sukamdani also reported that many hotels in Indonesia started striving for cost efficiency amid the hard times to generate cash flow because of the drop in hotel occupancy rates caused by a decline in tourist visits.

“Today, many daily workers in the hotel are not employed any more. The daily workers usually work depending on occupancy rates, such as the cleaning staff. Meanwhile, many contract and permanent employees are starting to work in shifts for efficiency,” he said.

The growing fears over the spread of COVID-19 have hit tourism-related businesses like travel agents, hotels and other accommodations across the country.

Pauline said ticket sales for inbound and outbound flights fell sharply, not only to those traveling for holidays but also for Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca. Many trips such as study tours and business trips have also been canceled following the government instruction to limit travel, movement and events.

As of March 12, Astindo recorded a nearly 90 percent drop in sales following booking cancellations caused by fears over the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, in February, Astindo members recorded potential losses of Rp 4 trillion.

“In the hard times, our members are still burdened with operational costs, such as office leasing fees, bank interest rates, employee salaries, electricity charges, telephone expenses and others. This is a hard time for us,” said Pauline.

Meanwhile, the PHRI reported the country’s overall occupancy rate had fallen below the low season average of 50 to 60 percent to 30 to 40 percent since the outbreak of the coronavirus in China in early January. In Bali, the occupancy rate had dropped to 20 percent, especially in areas visited by individual travelers such as Kuta, Sanur, Legian, Ubud and Jimbaran.