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Friday, June 05, 2020, 10:20
Travel in the future — it wouldn’t be on the fly
By Pamela Lin
Friday, June 05, 2020, 10:20 By Pamela Lin

Experts say in a post-coronavirus world, tourism industry’s greatest priority will be guaranteeing the health and safety concerns of travelers.  Pamela Lin reports from Hong Kong.

Rosy analyses and projections for the world’s tourism-and-travel market pre-COVID-19 were potent enough for industry players to set their wheels of fortune rolling.

Last year, it was revealed that global receipts from the market contributed nearly US$3 trillion to national GDPs, with the United States travel-and-tourism business accounting for the lion’s share of US$580 billion. Forecasts for the international tourism sector were even more promising, though less prescient — an annual growth rate of up to 4 percent, hitting US$11.4 trillion by 2025, with investors slated to pump US$1.3 trillion into the market by the middle of this decade.

The Asia-Pacific region alone was expected to pull in half a billion visitors from around the world by 2025.

The celebratory gyrations were barely over when the coronavirus unleashed its brutal force at the start of this year, shuttering businesses and bringing aviation and tourism to their knees. With five months now into the global public-health crisis, the cheery scenario has changed, with countries and regions apparently putting the worst behind them. So is consumption behavior although tourism and travel companies may be betting heavily on pent-up demand after the long stagnation.

Hygiene highly concerned

They’re calling it the third new normal, post-coronavirus, following those of the back-to-back world financial routs from 2012 to 2017, with the tourism industry likely to undergo a permanent change in terms of an abrupt shift in tourist behavior.  

Industry experts believe that as travelers become more fastidious and demanding, and the growth of the aviation and tourism sectors likely to be more constrained in the coming years, the onus is on industry-related operators to deliver to guarantee the health and safety of clients. Temperature screening will be the order of the day whenever visitors enter a public venue or a country; air, rail and sea passengers may have to be sanitized head to toe before boarding; and hygiene standards at hotels and transportation facilities will and can be easily checked with smartphones. Moreover, reasonable social distancing in public may win tacit approval among people.

“Tourism stakeholders of all types and sizes need to respond proactively to changes in consumer demand,” said Ralph Hollister, a hotel and tourism analyst at United Kingdom-based data and consultancy firm GlobalData. Initiatives to upgrade hygiene standards, he noted, have been taken by a range of tourism-related industries.

“A whole lot of consumers will be hyper-sensitive to hygiene and sanitation standards, especially in the hospitality business,” he said.

Multinational, US-based hospitality group Hilton has teamed up with the company behind Lysol, which makes cleaning and disinfecting products, as well as Mayo Clinic, to better ensure cleanliness at its hotels, while San Francisco-based lodging and homestay provider Airbnb is bringing in a former US surgeon general to help develop new cleaning protocols for its hosts.

Song Haiyan, associate dean and chair professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told China Daily the airline and transportation sectors will also have to respond to the changing consumer behavior.

He sees future aircraft being designed to provide reasonable distances between passenger seats, along with stricter cleaning processes.  

Consultancy firm OC&C said it found the COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated the shift to more automated and contactless operations among hotels.

On the Chinese mainland, Meituan Dianping — the Hong Kong-listed internet shopping platform — has launched “Safe to Stay” and “Safe to Visit” programs to allow hotels and tourist attractions to share their hygiene practices on its platform. Proof of stringent hygiene practices is required to be updated regularly to maintain their status.

In late April, Hong Kong International Airport, which has one of the world’s largest terminal buildings, became the first airport globally to install a full-body disinfecting machine called “CLeanTech”. Users can enter the booth before temperature checks for 40 seconds for disinfection and sanitizing procedures. Currently, the machine is used only by airport employees, but HKIA said it may be applied to all passengers in future.

As tourism operators and practitioners try to comprehend what the new normal would be like after the pandemic, initial feedback from hotels, airports and other tourism stakeholders points to some long-lasting changes in the tourism industry.  

“Air quality will be marketed as a unique selling point. Some airlines have started emailing customers about their current systems to stop people canceling bookings,” said Hollister. Australian flag carrier Qantas says its aircraft possess the “highest air quality, with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters installed in filtration systems — the same type of filters used in hospital operating rooms.

New travel ideas

Industry stakeholders have also come up with new travel ideas amid the pandemic in a bid to keep at least part of their operations afloat. The idea of a “travel bubble” or corridor that links countries and regions as a quarantine-free travel zone, allows their residents to commute between them, free from quarantine rules.

The countries and regions involved in the arrangement are those that have met with some success so far in curbing the spread of the virus. Three Baltic countries in Europe have already adopted the idea, while some other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, are expected to follow suit.

As “travel bubbles” gain steam, the Hong Kong Tourism Board said it expects the city to put the idea into practice, firstly with South Korea, Thailand, Macao and the Chinese mainland to reignite short-haul travel.

Song is on the same page with the Tourism Board, taking comfort that coronavirus infections in Hong Kong have been on the wane, as in Macao, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. He suggested that a travel corridor could first be set up among cities in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area — the China’s answer to the world’s other mega bay areas for closer economic development and integration.

Song said the QR health code system already adopted on the mainland to track residents’ level of exposure to COVID-19 could similarly be applied to the “travel bubble” regions. “Probably, Hong Kong and Macao will also need to have a similar travel digital QR code to make sure that people traveling within the regions have tested negative for COVID-19,” he said.

Hong Kong, as a global financial hub and a popular travel destination, has seen its tourism business bruised as international flights ground to a halt, hotel bookings evaporated and shoppers stayed away due to the measures enforced to contain the virus.  

Song expects the number of tourist arrivals in Hong Kong this year near to plummet by up to 60 percent compared with last year. In his view, it may take more than six months for the city’s tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels, and probably two years to levels before the social unrest erupted in June last year.

For a full rebound in international tourism, Hollister said many major companies and regulatory bodies are eyeing 2023 although he admitted it’s still anybody’s guess. “A significant and consistent reduction in global (coronavirus) infections must prevail before any accurate projection can be made.”

Contact the writer at pamelalin@chinadailyhk.com 

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