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Langkawi – opportunities for 2023 and beyond’ is an initial, high-level report designed to support Langkawi Island, Malaysia to continue building its reputation as an international tourist destination. 

February 2023

Island hopping from Langkawi
Introduction
 

Langkawi is in the Northwest coast of Malaysia and part of a group of a99 islands. With its beautiful environment, retail, cuisine, and wide-ranging activities, Langkawi has long been a jewel in the crown of Malaysian tourist destinations.  

 

Langkawi has attracted millions of tourists and RM Billions of revenue over recent decades. It was granted Duty Free Zone status in 1987, and in 1990 the Langkawi Development Authority (LADA) was established. The ongoing development of the Island has been included in the national level Malaysia Plan (1991 – 1995) to support economic growth on the island. Langkawi was recognised by UNESCO as a Geopark in June 2007. Since then, Langkawi has evolved rapidly with significant investment in infrastructure to support ongoing development.  

 

As with most tourist centric economies world-wide, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on Langkawi. A 2021 Department of Statistics Malaysia study estimated tourist arrivals dropped -83.4% and tourist receipts by -85.3% (to RM12.69 billion) in 2020 alone. This level of downturn has inevitably caused the closure of some businesses, lost or deferred investment, and detrimental economic conditions for the Langkawi community.  

While the downturn caused by COVID has been consistent with other international tourist destinations, the pandemic has also served to highlight opportunities for a fresh approach in Langkawi. Has Langkawi been too reliant upon particular categories of tourist? Have the tourist products and services become too narrow? Could the current strategy be limiting the appeal of Langkawi internationally? Is this limiting the opportunities for Langkawi and the resilience of the economy?  

 

This discussion paper posits that Langkawi could continue its evolution past the so-called ‘consolidation phase’ and into a new era of sustainable development. There is an opportunity for Langkawi to take a fresh approach and build a more resilient future. This could increase the breadth of tourist infrastructure and consequently broaden the positive economic and social impacts for Langkawi.    

Langkawi is the base for island hopping boat trips

"There is an opportunity for Langkawi to take a fresh approach and build a more resilient future."

Strengthen ‘brand Langkawi’ 

Langkawi is a premier destination amongst many Malaysian tourist locations but this could be accentuated further. From an international tourist perspective, Langkawi is comparable to Indonesia’s Bali and Thailand’s Phuket. A January 2023 Al Jazerra report however recently noted how Malaysia was lagging behind both Indonesia and Thailand in the recovery from COVID.  

 

There could be lessons from both Bali and Phuket that could benefit Langkawi. By way of comparison, Bali is an island amongst the thousands within the Indonesia archipelago that has used its unique offerings to its advantage. Despite its relative size and resources, Bali is frequently ranked the number one destination within Indonesia for international tourism.

 

Likewise, Phuket has also grown into one of Thailand’s most successful island destinations with an estimated 9 million plus visitors a year. Phuket continues to be seen as a flagship destination by the Thai government and in 2021 was granted priority status for the receipt of international tourists in the recovery from COVID. 

 

Bali, Phuket and Langkawi have similarities. All have distinct island cultures, natural beauty, and numerous tourist offerings. Bali has nurtured its standalone ‘brand’ as a relaxed, welcoming destination that is highly attractive to international tourists.  Phuket has similarly evolved its distinct brand for Thailand. 

 

Langkawi too has historically developed unique offerings to distinguish its ‘brand’. In 1987 Langkawi acquired duty free status and utilized this as key lever to attract international tourism. The diversity of tourist offerings has also rapidly grown over time from a focus on natural environment to a wide variety of activities.   

 

Langkawi could consider undertaking a renewed international marketing campaign to build ‘brand Langkawi’. This campaign would focus upon on Langkawi as a distinct, standalone destination with Malaysia is only highlighted as a secondary, ancillary destination. Langkawi would still provide the unique ‘Malaysian’ offerings – but through a Langkawi lens. 

It is recommended that:

  • A project is commissioned to rebrand Langkawi as a standalone international tourist destination with lessons drawn from other international destinations;

  • This work could be undertaken by a coordinated local, regional and national level task force to ensure the appropriate resources are brought to bear and Langkawi is considered a strategic priority for Malaysian tourism;

  • Subsequent marketing efforts could focus more on international social media, as well as mainstream media, and tourism sector marketing;

  • The Langkawi re-branding exercise could be used as a case study for a period of time before other Malaysian destinations are considered.

Pentai Cenang Beach in Langkawi at sunset.
Increased national level support for Langkawi

Langkawi’s continued evolution as a premier international tourist destination will require a concerted focus by all levels of government including at the national level. This may include funding and support, but most importantly ‘ownership’ as a national priority. While Langkawi has previously been the focus for national level planning, this heightened attention may expedite the ‘cut through’ required for a fresh approach.

It is important to note that central government support for Langkawi has not been lacking in the post COVID recovery. Over the last few years a number of support packages have been provided. They have included tax and duty exemptions and deferments, special assistance grants, and other measures.

The paper is not recommending these interventions are ineffective or cease. Instead, it proposes the re-imagination of how central government directly supports a strategic Malaysian destination such as Langkawi.

It is recommended that:

  • A central government led Langkawi task force is established made up of representatives of all levels of government (local, regional, central);

  • Options for a new Langkawi development fund are developed to support the prioritized projects required to give effect to the refreshed approach;

  • There is a renewed level of senior decision maker sponsorship and support for the taskforce at the national level. This should include decision makers with wider portfolios to allow for a fresh approach;

  • The appropriate planning and policy support required is available to the task force to allow the rapid development of the planning, and policies required.

This central government attention need not diminish the level of local input and the focus on sound long term outcomes. The right balance between central and local government needs to be struck. This, however, will require a high level of integration between the planning organizations involved at national, regional, and local levels.

More direct international linkages
 

Direct international links (aviation and maritime) with tourist destinations has a clear impact on the volume of tourists and local economies more generally. The establishment of additional international links with target populations will increase Langkawi’s accessibility to international tourists and provide new opportunities for the Island.

These direct international links could be developed alongside the refreshed strategic focus on Langkawi. New marketing campaigns could highlight the accessibility of Langkawi as a standalone destination.

The Increase in direct international links will also require accompanying logistics and infrastructure. An end-to-end approach should be considered that facilitates seamless transit for tourists from point of origin to Langkawi. This could include dedicated arrangements for tourists destined for Langkawi particularly where a direct is not possible (i.e. such as at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2).

It is recommended that:

  • A rapid assessment report is undertaken of international air and maritime linkages with Langkawi with the identification of new routines, carriers and related logistics and infrastructure;

  • Leadership be provided by a task force who are commissioned with developing options including funding, incentives and other support for new links;

  • Sustainable travel options be promoted as a priority where possible;

  • An end-to-end approach is taken that facilitates seamless transit for international tourists from origin to destination. This may require a separate review and recommendations;

  • Conferences, summits, tradeshows and other means of marketing Langkawi are undertaken to the travel industry, logistics, and infrastructure providers.

The enhancement of priority public locations

While COVID-19 has caused inevitable deterioration of infrastructure in Langkawi, there is much that could be done to enhance key public locations in Langkawi. The initial focus should be upon public areas with the highest levels of tourist patronage. This could include locations such as Pentai Cenang, Kuah, and the areas with closest access to the beach or forest.

Enhancement projects could be undertaken in multiple stages over several years but will require expedited scheduling to minimize the disruptive impact. This may be where additional support from central government could be helpful and minimize local impediments. Targeted support packages could be offered to Langkawi businesses impacted as required.

The design for enhancement could reflect a combination of contemporary international and local influences. Inspiration could be taken from other international locations with enduring tourist appeal.

It is recommended that:

  • Prominent landscaping projects be undertaken that include statement elements such as large palm trees, coconut trees, hedges, and other local flora. These could be planted in a uniform or non-uniform manner depending on design;

  • The areas for tourists to sit down and enjoy the environment are increased;

  • New boardwalks are created and existing ones extended along parts of popular beaches, particularly where restaurants, bars or other facilities are provided;

  • More walkways are built between beaches, within the main business areas, and connected to longer nature walks. These walkways need to be well sign posted and/or with colors, lights to make it easy for tourists to navigate;

  • Broken and uneven paving in public areas is replaced and improved;

  • Lighting is used within the primary tourist areas and developed into a feature in its own right. This could include hanging lights, pavement and garden lights and bespoke art features using light. Renewable power sources such as solar should be used where possible;

  • Street art, sculptures and other permanent creative expression could be commissioned. While this should include the distinct Langkawi style, consider attracting international artists to bring fresh ideas;

  • The number of rubbish bins/trash cans in the main thoroughfares is increased to reduce litter and encourage a clean environment;

  • Road design is reviewed in key locations such as Pentai Cenang. This could include considering options to widen pedestrian walkways, increase useable space for restaurants/bars, and lowering vehicle access where possible;

  • The availability of good, free Wi-Fi is increased in public environments to enhance the utility of priority locations for both entertainment and business purposes;

  • The number of good quality public toilets available for tourists is increased. These facilities could be made into unique architectural designs that merit tourist attention in their own right.

  • Key Langkawi streets and locations need sustainable enhancement

    Attract diverse international workforce

    Some international tourist destinations have been successful at attracting a diverse international workforce. This workforce can bring new international connections and vibrancy. As well as supplementing the local tourist workforce, a diverse workforce can bring fresh ideas, resources, and international interest. This can help build the diversity, breadth, and value of tourist service offerings. For Langkawi, this workforce could be both Malaysians with international experience and/or international individuals or companies with no previous connection to Malaysia or Langkawi.

    It is recommended that the international workforce could include:

  • Artists who can develop products and services that draw upon local and international inspiration. These artists could be commissioned to support the reimagination of the built environment and support initiatives such as street art and the establishment of new businesses;

  • Craft experts who could work with local businesses to develop fresh ideas and products that will appeal to international tourists;

  • Commercial property architects and interior designers who could be commissioned to refresh key commercial spaces and bring a fresh, contemporary approach;

  • Restauranteurs, café and bar owners who can bring quality service offerings. Some curation may be required within this category to ensure an appropriate mix of options and price ranges;

  • Music and performance artists who could be encouraged to consider Langkawi as a destination within their itineraries;

  • Boutique accommodation providers who could be supported to create new accommodation options drawing upon lessons learnt in other international destinations.

  • International digital nomads

    While not directly supplementing the local tourist workforce, international digital nomads should also be considered within Langkawi’s refreshed tourist strategy. Digital nomads are well recognized as bringing enduring economic and other benefits to local economies and Langkawi is well placed to capitalize on this.

    Langkawi already has many of the attributes of locations that are attractive to digital nomads. This includes the generally low cost of living, safety, natural environment, and the ease with which the digital nomads can establish themselves.

    While all of the recommendations already noted in this report may enhance the attractiveness of Langkawi to international digital nomads, there are others that could be considered too.

    It is recommended that:

  • Options for the establishment of dedicated remote workspace environments in Langkawi are developed;

  • An initiative to generate awareness within the Langkawi business community of the opportunity from international digital nomads is commissioned;

  • Targeted support packages for businesses supporting this niche are considered;

  • Langkawi’s connectivity is reviewed and where required, investment is made

    for the provision of fast, reliable connectivity and Wi-Fi in public locations;

  • A national level pilot program is undertaken to attract international digital

    nomads using Langkawi as a use case. This program could be a useful initiative for the Langkawi taskforce and used as a case study for other regions in Malaysia.

  • Maximizing the benefit for the local community

    As with all tourism development it is crucial to consider the outcomes for the local community. Tourism should enhance the wellbeing of the communities it is nested within and not cause economic, social, or environmental harm. With regard to the specific recommendations in this report, local input and ownership will be crucial.

    It is recommended that:

  • The creation of a standalone brand for Langkawi should include local expertise. This includes within the taskforce, working groups, and other means;

  • New national level funding and support arrangements are made for Langkawi;

  • Local views be included around the opportunities to leverage increased direct international flights so that wider benefits to infrastructure can be accrued;

  • Local expertise be included in the planning, design and creation of enhanced public locations within Langkawi;

  • The views of the Langkawi community are included with regard to planning to supplement the workforce in Langkawi;

  • Awareness, involvement and support are provided to the local community around the opportunity international digital nomads offer so that the community receive the long-term benefits.

  • Pot plants in Langkawi

    Summary

    Langkawi has the opportunity to reconsider its international tourist strategy and build a more diverse, dynamic, and resilient destination. This could improve the economic future of the Island as well as the broader well-being of the wider community.

     

    The key recommendations are:

  • The creation of a standalone brand for Langkawi;

  • Increased national level funding and support for Langkawi;

  • Establishing more direct international connections with Langkawi;

  • The enhancement of priority public locations;

  • Diversify the profile of the tourist workforce in Langkawi;

  • Attracting international digital nomads to Langkawi;

  • Engaging local expertise in the development of all options of all new initiatives.

  • ‘Langkawi – opportunities for 2023 and beyond’ is an initial, high- level report designed to support Langkawi Island, Malaysia to continue building its reputation as an international tourist destination. References and further, deeper analysis may be available upon request from George James Consulting. Please contact us via info@Georgejamesconsulting.com.

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