Spotlight on turnaround year for travel and tourism

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Spotlight on turnaround year for travel and tourism

Interview with Laurent Kuenzle, CEO Asian Trails Group

We are already a few weeks into 2021 and even though most of the world is in lockdown or partial lockdown or restricted in their movements or activities, there is a positive vibe in the air with news on vaccination programmes. Successful vaccination will be the game changer for tourism to re-start and we can only hope that governments will be able to overcome initial difficulties and move forward swiftly and efficiently.

I wish all of you success in moving from survival mode to recovery mode and hope to have the chance to meet many of you personally in the second half of the year. I thought it would be a good idea to answer some of the key questions friends and colleagues have been asking me in recent weeks, hence this first CEO Story of 2021 will follow an interview format. For simplicity’s sake I will always refer to ‘Covid’ and not specify ‘Covid-19’ or ‘Sars-Cov-2’ or any other similar term.

Have Covid vaccination programmes started in South-East Asia and China?

To a small extent yes, but not in any large mass vaccination programmes yet. I believe the Americas, Europe and India are ahead of the game with vaccination having started in many countries despite initial logistical difficulties and a lack of vaccines. I foresee that South-East Asian vaccination programmes will commence in Q2 with vaccines obtained from different pharma companies and source countries. I’m yet to receive reliable information on China.

Will it be compulsory to be vaccinated against Covid to be allowed to travel to South-East Asia and China?

It’s a question I cannot answer at this stage. There are internal and government-to-government discussions taking place, but as far as I know no decisions have been taken. A few industry players such as the Australian airline Qantas have announced that it will be compulsory to be vaccinated against Covid in order to be allowed to board one of their international flights, but we will have to wait a bit longer to understand whether such companies will be the exception or the leaders paving the way of the future of travelling.

Do you see light at the end of the tunnel now that vaccination programmes will start?

Vaccines are the game changer, but besides vaccines we will need better co-ordination and communication between governments for travellers to gain confidence that travel will be safe, smooth, efficient and painless. No one wants to fear quarantine or other types of country regulations changing every day. Since not everyone will be vaccinated at the same time but many will want to travel nevertheless, facilitating travel will also have to include protocols such as those proposed by the WTTC (World Travel & Tourism Council).

When will South-East Asian countries and China open their borders for tourists to travel without restrictions?

My assumption is that borders will only open unconditionally to tourists once a (large) part of the local population has been vaccinated. At Asian Trails we predict that tourists will return to our destinations in the second half of 2021.

Can tourists travel to any country in Asia at the moment?

Yes they can, such as to Thailand, Cambodia or Indonesia, but subject to regulations including quarantine upon arrival at the destination and conditional to a negative Covid test prior to departure. Extensive paperwork is often required prior to travelling to obtain visas and/or entry certificates. Our offices can send detailed information on all our destinations.

Why have Asian countries enforced much stricter regulations and border restrictions than most other countries in the world?

There are many reasons and amongst those is the fact that Asian countries learned from the spread of the SARS virus in 2003; they acted quickly and strictly right from the onset of Covid. In general, Asian people were more afraid to catch the virus and die from Covid than in the West, and public fear pushed governments to extreme measures (some would argue that public fear was instigated by governments for easier control of its population).

Whereas many Western countries tried to balance public health against economic damage, Asian countries put public health first. The more autocratic governments in Asia did not face the same resistance against rules and regulations as did many governments in the West. Basic measures such as wearing a mask did not fall on deaf ears since it was already customary in many countries in Asia to wear a mask such as when one suffers from the flu and/or is sensitive to pollution.

Will tourists change their travelling behaviour and what trends do you foresee when tourists return?

People are fed up of having to sit alone at home, of being restricted to their bubble environment and they miss seeing family and friends. I believe there is huge pent-up demand for travel and we will see requests bounce back as soon as borders open and people are vaccinated. We won’t have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for tourists to return in large numbers. People will have to feel safe and welcome and safety protocols will (initially) play an important role. Family and friends, as well as small group travel will be booming. Destinations offering nature experiences away from crowds and sustainable, meaningful travel benefiting local communities will be in high demand. Slow travel will see many new followers.

Also, city travel will see a bounce back, high-class dining as well as street food will be as sought after, as will rooftop bars and entertainment venues. Products will be available for all budgets; value for money will be a key decision-making factor. Sadly, it will take time for some places to recover from the crisis and some tourism stakeholders will not have funds available to re-start their businesses in the first stage of the recovery. Flexible terms and conditions will enhance people to book. Last minute bookings will be the norm rather than the exception, at least in the short term.

Does Asian Trails look after domestic travellers and what initiatives is Asian Trails taking in these downturn times?

We looked after domestic travellers at some of our destinations and provided services to long-stay travellers. Our incentive departments organised a few hybrid events and facilitated online conferences. This is a far cry from our usual revenue streams, but we tried to generate at least a bit of income. We took advantage of these slow business months in moving ahead with our technology projects and in creating many new Explore products. We also fast-tracked sustainability initiatives and are about to launch a new villa product in Thailand and Bali. External and internal training, as well as education projects were numerous and client-focused. We right sized our organisation and reviewed our efficiency and operations procedures. We are ready to move full speed ahead with all our activities once business returns.

As always, I will gladly answer any questions you may have, don’t hesitate to write to me!

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