Tourists are back but not workers; tourism sector suffers from lack of staff

A shortage of skilled workers in the hospitality sector is hitting the tourism sector at a time when it is seeing an upswing in business, and the shortage is threatening to get worse by the year’s end.

As local and foreign visitors rush back to hotspots such as Langkawi, Penang, Port Dickson, Ipoh and Melaka, tourism players find themselves frustratingly short-handed.

Tourism is a major revenue earner for Malaysia, contributing RM86.14 billion to the country’s economy with 26.1 million tourists in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, according to Tourism Malaysia.

In Penang, nearly all hotels are publishing their job vacancies on social media and employment portals every week, with more than 10 positions available — from guest services managers to engineers and technicians.

“Our previous colleagues left between 2020 and last year — either because of retrenchment or they couldn’t stand the months of pay cuts or compulsory unpaid leave during the various movement control orders,” said the director of a five-star resort, who declined to be named.

“They’ve found other things to do. We contacted them after we were allowed to fully reopen last October but they don’t want to come back.”

He said nearly all hotels nationwide were facing a shortage of manpower. The deadline to resolve the workforce vacuum, he added, was November.

“Our long-stay guests from Europe and the Middle East would have started booking from November onwards. We must be ready with a full workforce to give five-star service,” he said.

The sector is also grappling with the pull of foreign workers by sectors like construction and agricultures, which do not require skilled employees.

Penang Conventions and Exhibitions Bureau chief executive officer Ashwin Gunasekaran said up to 45 international MICE events (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions), which were postponed when the pandemic hit in 2020, were now fixing new dates.

In addition, over 30 MICE events for which the state agency is in the final stages of bidding will also happen in Penang. In total, more than 75 events are getting slots to take place here before 2026.

These MICE events, added Ashwin, involved congregations of between 200 and 5,000 people from around the world.

On top of filling tourist buses and hotels, such events also bring revenue to a large segment of the service economy in Penang.

“Tourism-related businesses may have been among the first to be forced to fully shut down during a calamity like a pandemic, but when we come back, it is tourism-related demand that will bring the biggest benefit to local economies.”

Ashwin gave the example of an audio-visual equipment exhibition which took place last weekend at a hotel in Gurney Drive and which saw the top product — a RM1mil audio-visual set of equipment — being sold.

“When you have high-value, high-impact events like this in Penang, you bring many high-net-worth people to the state,” he said.