PATA’S MARIO HARDY – ON ASIA PACIFIC AND THE COVID-19 CRISIS

Pacific-Asia Travel Association CEO, Dr Mario Hardy talks to us about the current state of affairs in the region, and how tourism will change in the future

How has APAC fared compared to other regions?

Essentially at this time, we are all equal in this crisis. If you look back to the month of July in terms of the decrease in travel around the world compared to the same time last year, the average globally was 97.1% less than the previous year. If you look at all the regions around the world, they all are on a similar pegging. Asia is no better than any other region in terms of reduced travel. However, some parts of Asia have actually done better in terms of managing the number of cases and managing the current situation and also in terms of the reopening of the domestic markets. Thailand, where I am based, was one of the first areas in the world where domestic travel restarted. Eight destinations in driving distance from Bangkok reopened at the start of summer, and have been quite full since then. Koh Samui, Phuket and Krabi haven’t done so well, however, because they rely so much on international travel. Most travel is being done within driving distance of the capital – to places like Hua Hin, Pataya, and so on. So, in that sense, most Asian markets have been doing well in terms of domestic tourism.

Different governments have been working very differently in terms of helping the industry stay on its feet during the crisis. How have you seen this panning out?

Some countries around Asia have dealt with the subsidies in a much better way than the others, in terms of the accessibility, the speed with which the funds were being allocated and distributed. Singapore, for example, has been extremely efficient in providing means for people to access the funds at an early stage sufficiently to sustain them for a period of time. Other countries have not been organised so well, firstly in the amounts, and secondly in the distribution or access to the funds, which have not been fairly or equally distributed across different regions. But the challenge is that these funds, made available in March, were distributed on the assumption that by summer, we would be going back to “normal”.

Back in March, PATA launched a tourism recovery platform – a crisis resource centre – specifically with the purpose of collecting, and aggregating in one location, the subsidies that were available for each respective country, linked back to their respective governments. We had a few hundred destinations working with that platform, and we were monitoring very closely how these countries were responding; comparing them and seeing who was doing better than the others. This was done mostly with the assumption that this would last until the summer, and things would gradually come back… which we know they haven’t. And it’s very unlikely that international borders will reopen – at the same level they were before – until 2021. So, we are going to be in this situation for a far longer period of time. The question therefore is, “will the governments provide additional subsidies in the weeks and months to come to assist the businesses, or not. We know for a fact from an impact survey we conducted already back in April that 15% of the respondents (about 500 SMEs across Asia-Pacific) had already closed their business permanently, with no intention to reopen. 42% of these respondents also said at the time that they only had enough money for two to four months, which means by now, most of them would already be closed.

How is tourism going to change over the next months and years because of the Covid-19 crisis? Asia has some strong assets in the remoteness of many of its locations. Is this something that is going to be even more attractive for tourists?

It’s a very complex question – for many reasons. Big cities are generally the hardest hit. We know, through different surveys that have been conducted by ourselves, but also other organisations, that there is a great desire for people the travel. The desire to travel is still there, but people are less likely to book into crowded areas or cities. They are more likely to go to tertiary cities and regions where there are fewer people. They are seeking more nature-based destinations, more family oriented, or with friends, as opposed to the large groups that we had seen before. This is what people will be seeking out moving forward. But the real challenge is air travel. We know how much all the airlines around the world have been so severely impacted by this crisis. Many of the businesses of the airlines may not be able to sustain, and survive this crisis. If you just look at the number of flights currently available, it’s increasing week by week, but the destinations where the airlines are deciding to fly are based on the travel restrictions that are currently in place. How fast or how slow these restrictions will be lifted moving forward is something none of us really knows at this point. The airlines will gradually open where there is business. And if there is not enough business in one place versus another, it will be dropped – the service to these destinations will not be available. So, if I am going to plan my next holiday, the thing I am going to check first is: “Where can I go?” Where are the places I can actually fly – in my case throughout Thailand – but also returning to Thailand safely. So, the choices will be limited for a period of time.

The Maldives have stood out by opening up to everyone. What are your thoughts about that?

The Maldives are a unique market because of the one island – one resort concept. If you go to the Maldives, you will only be transiting in Malé. Very, very few people will stay in the capital, but rather they travel directly on to an island resort. You can look at this in two ways. The first is that the risk of contamination is limited to a single resort. But on the other hand, you are stuck on a small island with the same people for a period of a week or two weeks. If one assumes that the proper guidelines, protocols and testing is done pre-arrival or at arrival, and the protocols at the hotels are well respected in terms of distancing, wearing masks, using hand sanitiser etcetera, the risks are probably quite minimal compared to other destinations.

What are the fears in the industry that second or even third waves of Coronavirus will impact business?

We recently seen – in places like Vietnam – that were Covid-free, suddenly just had a resurgence of cases. We have seen a second wave, or in some cases, a third wave – in Hong Kong or Singapore, or in other countries such as Korea, Japan and China, Australia … but also in Europe in the UK, Spain and France and in many other destinations around the world. TripAdvisor and a number of other international organisations came up a few months ago with what they call the “five phases” of the recovery. What we are seeing at the moment is countries moving back and forth between these five different phases of recovery. This will continue for quite some time to come. Until there is a vaccine or treatment, I strongly believe that we will see these different stages at different levels in different destinations – and they will be going back and forth between them.

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