A long time ago, tourist guides were employed full time and freelancing started to gain popularity some 30 years ago. Tourist guides, including females, were also limousine drivers as they too handled Free Independent Travellers (FITs) driving tour cars licensed as limousine taxis.
The early limousines included full-size American cars with engines larger than tour buses and these fuel guzzlers were phased out after the 1973 oil crisis. Amazingly, tour buses around 1970 were safer and more comfortable than many running on our roads today.
They were solidly built in Japan like a tank with round headed rivets protruding from the bus body panels. Thanks to full air-suspension, the ride was silky smooth. Their two-stroke diesel engine may be small but generated enough power as air was blown in by supercharger.
In 1973, I started work as a tourist guide cum limousine driver in a large company that was the first to operate car rental, limousine taxis and tour buses in Malaysia. My first day was spent observing a tourist guide conducting the morning and afternoon sightseeing tours around Kuala Lumpur in a tour bus.
The passengers were picked up from various hotels and most tour bookings were made by front office staff and they were paid handsome commissions. The five major hotels then were the Hilton, Regent, Equatorial, Merlin and Federal.
Without any training or practice, I conducted the same tours by myself on my second day of work. Although I studied only up to Form Five, I subscribed and read magazines such as Time, Life and Reader’s Digest from Form Four and studied world geography and history, all in English.
None of the foreign guests could tell it was my first tour that I conducted as a tourist guide. Later, when I handled my first escorted tour group, the tour leader approached me to compliment my sincerity, without realising that I was still new and far from jaded.
I also remember my first FIT, a lady doctor from Argentina who spoke little English. I bought a durian for her to sample and she grimaced. After driving her to Subang Airport for her departure flight, I waited to see her plane take off before leaving the observation deck.
Apart from the morning and afternoon tours around Kuala Lumpur and full-day excursions to Melaka, the night tour with a cultural show were also popular. Tourists were taken for a drive that included Chinatown before reaching the Yazmin Restaurant, and the cultural show offered was in the form of several Malay dances.
The next stop in the morning tour after Batu Caves was the Selayang Batik Factory, which was an impressive sight, as the buildings and huts there were made of wood and bamboo and looked like a quaint Malay village in the eyes of tourists.
It was an authentic factory and not just a makeshift demonstration centre cum showroom found in many tourist-stops.
All these happened 46 years ago. Not only was there little or no improvement in the quality of our tours, many have probably declined.
Existing tours need to be re-crafted to make them more interesting or meaningful, so that tourists get to immerse in experiential tourism. But this will not happen until the authorities conduct workshops to create and compile ideas for dissemination.
If not, our tourism industry will remain at its infancy and all the claims, slogans, promotions and publicity will not make it better.
The best example is lack of inter-city bus tours that cover the entire Peninsular Malaysia. While local sightseeing in tour buses are available in many cities including some excursions, they are none for those with overnight stay except private tours.
But travelling outstation in a private car or taxi, although convenient, is too expensive for most tourists, and less fun. It would be more popular if tourists could join others in buses that depart daily from major cities, allowing them to board and disembark at their hotels with sightseeing and commentaries en route.
It is too much of a hassle for tourists to make their way to bus stations and travel by express buses with luggage in tow.
If there is one iconic product that can be created to best define touring in Malaysia, it will have to be the “Around Peninsular Malaysia” (APM) tours that I am now proposing. Imagine a tour bus leaving a selected hotel every morning from a major city and heading towards the next.
These cities or destinations can include Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, Ipoh, Penang, Kota Bharu, Kuantan, Johor Bahru and Melaka. That would be eight buses travelling in a clockwise direction.
Adding another eight buses running anticlockwise would allow passengers more choices to return to the city of origin after staying for any number of nights.
Another two coaches could traverse between Kuala Lumpur and Kuantan, in opposite directions, daily. This would allow them to stay for one or more nights at each city.
Except for Cameron Highlands, tourists could also choose to fly and begin or end their bus tour from any of these cities.
The same buses used for overland transfer in the morning could be used to run afternoon sightseeing tours at the destination, and night tours with dinner and a show.
If the seating capacity for these 18 buses is 40 passengers each, and the load factor is at 60 per cent and bus utilisation 80 per cent, total monthly sales based on seats sold daily would number 10,368.
This alone would be worthwhile for anyone with the capital to invest in 18 new tour buses. There would be additional income from hotel reservations, on-board merchandising and shopping commissions, which need not be banned if tourists are not taken for a ride.
Such APM tours would draw many tourists to visit and explore Malaysia, particularly free independent tourists, who can plan their own itinerary and schedule and not be stuck with the same tour group.
They would also be popular with Malaysians wishing to see their own country in the company of foreign tourists as they could strike up friendships with visitors. This reminds me of the old TV series The Love Boat.
It is a must for tourism students to learn evocatively by interacting with tourists, and tourism industry personnel can be given substantial discount on offload basis, meaning they will not displace tourists paying full fare.
Selected foreign travel agents can be invited for familiarisation tours on complimentary basis.
The success of APM tours would spawn similar bus tours in Sabah and Sarawak – the Pan Borneo Highway offers a great opportunity for tourists to travel an epic journey traversing the island of Borneo. These tour bus routes could also be used to promote motoring holidays in Malaysia.
It is time we realise that we need to do more than talking or promoting our many attractions in the country. They are like raw ingredients in food, which cannot be consumed until they are cooked or turned into a great dish by a master chef. Similarly, individual products do not prompt tourists to act unless they are prepared to make all the travel arrangements themselves.
Great ready-made tour packages such as APM tours form the missing link that can make Malaysia a much greater holiday destination, allowing any tourist to explore the length and breadth of the peninsula in safety and convenience. With live streaming daily to loved ones at home, even the infirm, aged, retirees or schoolchildren from all over the world can travel safely on their own.
In fact, any enterprising person could kick off such tours with minimal capital. As there is an oversupply of tour buses, it would not be difficult to mop up 18 excess units in the market and build a mobile app with global reach to provide the relevant information and handle reservations.
It would be the one bus tour all local travel agencies and tour companies could sell and earn commissions from, while tourists from all over the world could book direct through the website or mobile app 24/7.
Tourist arrivals to Malaysia have plateaued, with over 25 million visitors annually in five of the last seven years, including last year, while our Asean neighbours registered increases. A quantum leap is needed for our tours so that tourists return for more or recommend others to visit our country.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.