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Feature Story

Wanderlust Beckons Again

As the Covid-19 vaccination effort finally gets underway here in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the world, many are hopeful that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps it is premature to pronounce the end of this global pandemic is near, a disease that has infected over 115 million people and claimed, directly or indirectly, over 2.5 million lives worldwide. Still, the effort and discussion to resume global travel, arguably the most hard-hit economic sector resulting from the pandemic, becomes ever more urgent. With the onset of the pandemic, traveling across countries and continents virtually came to a halt, a phenomenon totally unprecedented in modern history. For Hong Kong, which is a key gateway city and one of the world’s most open economies that relies heavily on unencumbered movement of people, goods and services, the closing of our borders to visitors has had a cataclysmic impact on the city’s hospitality industries, especially to hotels and airlines.

Thanks to the ingenuity and perseverance of the city’s hoteliers, most of them manage to hang on for dear life, waiting for the city to re-open. So, what are the prospect of its reopening, and what are some of the challenges facing not only Hong Kong, but the world at large, as they struggle to rejuvenate a once flourishing global industry?

As and when Covid-19 Pandemic wanes, restoration of people’s desire and confidence to travel is key. We should take heart in that wanderlust, the desire to travel, is embedded in our DNA, and surely wanderlust would beckon again for many after being cooped up for so long.

Still, some travel sectors may recover faster than others, while some may face significant headwinds. The MICE (Meeting, Incentives, Conference and Exhibitions) sector could be entering somewhat unchartered waters as Zoom becomes a household word and virtual conferences and seminars emerged overnight to become the de-facto group communication forum. Undoubtedly, onsite, physical gatherings still offer tangible values and benefits, but conference and event organisers will need to repurpose their events with new and added value propositions to lure back participants. With Hong Kong as a key MICE destination in Asia, the stakes to the city are high as to how this sector will evolve. By the way, the same forces also drive business travel, perhaps even more so, as working from home becomes ubiquitous and business travellers invariably will be revalidating the costs and benefits of travelling in person.

Shopping tourism is another sector that faces potentially significant structural challenges, especially as online shopping and e-commerce continue to increase market shares. In the U.S., many shopping centres and malls are devasted as retail stores large and small are shuttered, many permanently. How this affects Hong Kong specifically remains uncertain, since much of our shopping tourism is driven by tourists from Mainland China. On the surface, it seems that as long as Hong Kong continues to offer advantages in price, quality, model selection and product authenticity, especially for high-end branded fashion products and personal health and food items, these tourists should continue to flock to Hong Kong to shop.

Leisure travel is the one segment that should recover quickly once travel resumes. The desire to being there, to absorb the sights, sounds, colours, and smells of a travel destination, is still non-replaceable, for now. One could even argue that experiential travel, that of seeking out unique or distinct physical travel experiences will be the dominant force in driving future travel patterns.  On leisure travel, Hong Kong enjoys many advantages as it offers such a diverse mix of sensory experiences, thanks to our geography, our cityscape, and our unique, vibrant culture. Of course, Hong Kong can always do more to bolster its reputation as a must-visited city in the post-pandemic world as travellers become more discerning.

 Still, even when travels resume, to encourage people to do so, there needs to be a concerted effort to reduce or eliminate the fear of travel, and specifically on the fear of flying, of staying in hotels, and of getting out and about once there. The state of fear about Covid-19 that now pervades the world needs to fade as appropriate, replaced by conveying of prudent, practically, and helpful messages that travelling is fine again.

The history with pandemics has been that just as there seemed to be no end in sight to the disease, the virus quickly and suddenly disappeared, perhaps with societies reaching herd immunity faster than thought. We are hopeful that is the case with Covid-19. Regardless, as a city that has managed to survive crisis after crisis and re-invent itself time and again, we are confident that collectively, Hong Kong has the resiliency, will, and ingenuity to recover quickly and chart a new, successful chapter for its hospitality and travel sectors. We are Hong Kong, after all!

 

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