Long queues at Penang International Airport (PIA) lasting three to four hours on Dec 2 have left some travellers less than sanguine about their time on the island.
With fewer than half of the immigration counters open that day, long lines of passengers awaiting clearance spanned the length of the arrival hall. Some who were queueing on a stationary escalator with their hand luggage resorted to sitting on the steps, according to social media posts.
The situation was much improved on Dec 3, as all 12 immigration counters were in operation, reported Malaysia’s Sin Chew Daily.
One traveller arriving in Penang on an international flight told the Chinese-language newspaper that clearing Customs and collecting his luggage took just 30 minutes.
Nine international flights arriving on Dec 2 were affected, as only five out of 12 counters were open between 11.40am and 2.30pm, Penang Tourism and Creative Economy Committee chairman Wong Hon Wai told Malaysian media.
The flights originated from places including Singapore, Jakarta and Taipei. Passengers from eight outbound flights were also affected.
Mr Wong said Penang’s Immigration Department had been notified of the incident.
He added that people had also experienced long waiting times two weeks ago, which could be due to numerous Immigration Department staff being on leave. This similarly happened during weekends, especially Saturdays when more flights were scheduled to arrive in Penang.
Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said on Dec 3 said that people would encounter more long waits unless action was taken to cope with the expected rise in international visitors, as Malaysia recently announced visa-free entry to tourists from countries including China and India.
Democratic Action Party chairman and former Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng said on Dec 3 that he had contacted Malaysia’s Home Minister over the immigration congestion problem, conveying his hopes for improvement.
Many affected travellers posted photos of themselves queueing in a packed arrival hall with little to no space, tagging PIA in a bid to attract the attention of the authorities.
One tourist wrote on Facebook: “PIA’s unbelievably messy crowds… You need to spend a few hours before even reaching the immigration counters. Please think twice before coming to Penang for holiday.”
Some blamed the sudden introduction of the Malaysia Digital Arrival Card on Dec 1, which the Immigration Department said applies to most foreign travellers, for the chaos.
Mr Hsu Shang-zhi, president of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce in Penang, told Malaysian Chinese daily China Press that many incoming travellers were caught off guard by the announcement of the new regulation.
He said the airline had told him that travellers would be exempted from completing the entry form until Dec 8, and blamed the airport for not providing comprehensive guidance on the measure and for not responding well with crisis control. It took him nearly four hours just to reach the arrival hall.
He added that this was the first time he had encountered such an issue at the airport, having lived in Penang for over 20 years.
Another traveller from Taiwan, Mr Cai Ding-bang, told China Press he was part of a 100-strong group visiting Malaysia to attend a conference. A first-time visitor to Penang, he added that many in his group now have a bad impression of the island and may not return.
On flight review site Skytrax, the airport was give a 1/10 rating by Singaporean J. Teo, who wrote: “Horrible! Waited 3 hrs+ to clear Customs. Poorly organised and no one was there to take charge.”
Gerakan deputy president Oh Tong Keong said he was shocked and disappointed that tourists were entering Malaysia “squeezed like sardines”. He wrote on Facebook: “Is this the way our country is welcoming tourists?”
Mr Oh said that this incident could have a serious negative impact on the tourism industry, just as the country is working to recover economically. He urged the airport authorities and the Immigration Department to take a serious look at the matter to avoid a repeat of similar incidents.
Why airport Penang stuck hari ni? Jalan masuk pun diorang tutup. pic.twitter.com/YebWKiAgRS
— Aj (@LAshila7) December 2, 2023