On Thursday 11 February, a Gary Bowerman live interview was broadcast on Singapore-based CNA938’s evening drive-time show .
Gary answered questions from presenters Lance Alexander and Tay Soo Sien about the outlook for travel in South East Asia in 2021 following the start of COVID-19 vaccine rollouts in the region.
Here’s the transcript of the Gary Bowerman interview:
CNA: Lance Alexander
With vaccination programmes starting to be rolled out in countries around the world, optimism is rising among the travel and tourism industry – which is quite likely the hardest hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some airlines have reopened bookings with carriers making a push for an international standard digital health passport to enable more to travel.
CNA: Tay Soo Sien
But that optimism could be misplaced as governments opt to err on the side of safety as new waves of infection continue to recur.
Well, let’s find out from an industry insider what the outlook for 2021 is. And for that we welcome Gary Bowerman, who is Director at Check-in Asia and an Asian travel and tourism analyst.
Hello, Gary, good evening. Would you say to keep their people safe, most countries are placing air travel and aviation way down the priority list, or charging high hotel quarantine rates if you’d like to visit?
Hi. Good afternoon guys, thanks for having me on the show.
I think it’s a little bit unfair to say that it’s down the priority list. I think the problem with this is that it’s a pandemic, and there are just so many cross-cutting priorities. If you look at the way governments have to manage this, you realise it goes across all departments of government, from the Prime Minister’s Office through the Ministries of Finance and Health, Education, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs.
Then you’ve got cross-cutting bodies like COVID-19 strategy groups. So, there are just so many competing priorities. But we do have to accept that most governments in Asia, 11 or 12 months ago, made the decision to close their borders because they did see international travel as the most significant vector of transmission of COVID-19.
“We do have to accept that most governments in Asia, 11 or 12 months ago, made the decision to close their borders because they did see international travel as the most significant vector of transmission of COVID-19.”
What we’re seeing right now is, it was so much easier to lock down borders than it is to reopen them. It’s proving very, very difficult, and we’ve seen, as you mentioned in your preamble, rising transmission numbers around the world. We see these new mutating variants as well.
The end result is that countries like the UK – which kept its borders open for most of the pandemic so far – are now going the other way and instituting quarantines and border controls.
So, looking at where we were a year ago to where we are right now, it’s quite gloomy for travel and tourism.
CNA: Lance Alexander
So, we’ve got these aviation and tourism companies that are dependent on this industry. How are they going to survive? Or do you think they need to pivot until things improve significantly?
I think to be fair to most travel industry players, they have pivoted. They’ve done everything they can to support domestic tourism economies, to really try and innovate, create new services, new innovative experiences for domestic travellers. But that’s all they can do.
The problem with domestic tourism is it fills in some of the gaps. It means that hotel rooms or domestic airline seats can fill up on public holidays and weekends, but there are huge gaps in between. Domestic tourism only really allows tourism businesses, or some of them, to stay afloat. It doesn’t help them to grow.
“Domestic tourism only really allows tourism businesses, or some of them, to stay afloat. It doesn’t help them to grow.”
Our region, over the last 10 years, saw exponential growth in regional tourism, and that brought a lot of new companies and businesses into the industry – and they were being successful. We had a very successful decade.
But that came to a grinding halt, and right now domestic tourism just really can’t do enough for all these businesses.
CNA: Tay Soo Sien
We’ve seen some governments financially supporting the tourism and aviation industries. In your view, what else can be done to get these industries back on their feet?
Well, if you ask the travel industry, they’ll tell you the only thing that can get these companies back on their feet is planes in the air and people travelling again. But for that to happen, as you’ve mentioned before, vaccines are being rolled out, there are so many issues about the transfer of information regarding vaccines and testing requirements. There’s a whole range of issues that need to be integrated.
There’s also a low degree of trust between countries. Some countries in our region have managed the virus more successfully than others. It’s unlikely that there are going to be bilateral agreements between countries that managed it differently, so you’re looking at Green Zone countries perhaps in the near future will try to reopen with other Green Zone countries.
“Around the region that really spooked governments – because two destinations, Singapore and Hong Kong, that had handled the virus pretty well up to that point still couldn’t make a travel bubble work.”
We saw that a bit at the end of last year. Hong Kong and Singapore tried valiantly to open an air travel bubble between the two destinations. That was beaten by the coronavirus, which was the only reason the bubble didn’t happen. And I think around the region that really spooked governments – because two destinations that had handled the virus pretty well up to that point still couldn’t make a travel bubble work.
And then we had the winter in Northeast Asia. We also have these new variants. So, there are just so many issues to try and get businesses back afloat again.
CNA: Lance Alexander
Are we any closer to having maybe a concerted international effort to create a recognized safety standard when it comes to air travel? What exactly can countries or industries do to create travel again, if people have vaccines?
We’ve got to the point a year into this pandemic where there is a huge amount of lobbying from within the aviation and the travel industries towards governments. The reality is we are reaching an inflection point where major companies will go bust in the next six months. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
Some of the major airlines have recapitalized to such a level that they will probably be OK, but there are some other big players that will run out of cash. This would have knock-on effects across economies.
Now, you mentioned Qantas requiring passengers to be vaccinated and you also mentioned earlier that Singapore Airlines had its first flight today with vaccinated crew, so there are certain things that individual companies are trying to do. But you’re absolutely right, there needs to be some international integration on this.
“How do you create a system where all vaccines are accepted even if some countries haven’t approved them for use on their own citizens? It’s a really difficult political issue.”
The problem is although we’re seeing some vaccines come out, the immunity levels on those vaccines vary. Some countries are approving certain vaccines, other countries are proving different vaccines – plus there will be more vaccines coming onstream over the next few months.
How do you create a system where all vaccines are accepted even if some countries haven’t approved them for use on their own citizens? It’s a really difficult political issue.
CNA: Tay Soo Sien
Absolutely. So, very quickly – what if you don’t take the vaccination, would that mean you’ll not be able to travel?
Yeah, that’s an issue that I think will come to the fore over the next few months. You mentioned Qantas and its CEO Alan Joyce has said that if you want to fly on Qantas in future, you will need to be vaccinated. He also said, after that interview, that Australia may take that decision out of his hands. So, to travel in or out of Australia, you would need to be vaccinated.
I think that’s going to happen more and more, particularly with countries that have managed this virus very well. They’re not going to backtrack on vaccinations or testing, and the protocols may get even stricter.
I would say the main problem with some of the vaccinations is that we don’t really know yet if you’re vaccinated whether you can still transmit the virus, so there are a lot of issues still to roll out.
But in terms of whether you’ll be able to fly if you’re not vaccinated, there may be some exemptions, but on the whole I would say it’s probably unlikely.