South-east Asian travel firms exercise patience for returning Chinese travellers

  • Chinese holidaymakers could start returning as early as April
  • Visa issues, limited flight capacity and operational challenges faced by Chinese outbound agents will impact recovery
  • Southeast Asia’s manpower challenges are mixed
Nusa Lembongan Bali 640
Indonesia now relies on routes from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to lure Chinese tourists; pictured is Nusa, Lembongan, Bali

Southeast Asian travel companies don’t expect an immediate influx of Chinese holidaymakers after China’s landmark reopening to international travel on Jan. 8, citing hurdles such as visa applications, operational challenges and a slow resumption of direct flights.

The main gateways to Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and klia2, have information desks manned by Mandarin-speaking staff, ready to welcome Chinese tourists. However, Malaysian inbound agents said the number of Chinese tourists remains low and is only expected to pick up in 2H2023.

Sunflower Holidays managing director Mint Leong blamed a lack of flights between Malaysia and China, high ticket prices and a lack of instructions on outbound group travel.

Also, it will take time for Chinese outbound agents to rebuild their business. “Many companies have had to lay off their staff and are now facing staffing challenges. I think many institutions in China will only pack up their houses after the Chinese New Year,” Leong added.

Uzaidi Udanis, president of the Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA), said the initial recovery was partly driven by Chinese businessmen looking for investment opportunities in Malaysia. The numbers increase during China’s three annual Golden Week holidays — Chinese New Year, the Labor Day holiday in May and National Day in October. For this to happen, the Covid-19 situation in China and air connectivity between Malaysia and China must be improved.

need to resume flight
Two Indonesian travel agencies also expressed reservations about their expectations, saying air access from China needs to be improved.

Bambang Sugiono, director of RD Tours in Bali, said there was still no news of airlines resuming flights between China and Bali, while his outbound partner in China told him that the Chinese were “more eager” to visit Thailand as travel restrictions were lifted.

“There are flights to Thailand, which has been aggressively promoting itself during the pandemic. Unfortunately, Indonesia has slowed down (destination promotions),” Bambang added.

He believes that it will take time for Bali to see a large influx of inbound Chinese.

Christine Kowandi, tour manager at Horas Tours in Medan, said the destination can currently rely on connections from Singapore and Kuala Lumpur air hubs to attract Chinese.

Oriol Montal, general manager of The Westin Resort Nusa Dua, Bali, is more optimistic as Bali remains one of China’s top five outbound tourism destinations. He expects an influx of Chinese holidaymakers by May, when China celebrates the five-day Labor Day holiday. Cargo volumes are expected to grow as direct flights to Bali resume.

According to Montal, manpower is not an issue. In anticipation of the 2022 G20 Bali summit in November last year, the hotel has increased its staff, including new staff in the catering business.

In the Philippines, tour operators can only hope to see more Chinese holidaymakers in April or May, when their holidays are short.

That’s because the Philippines “still requires a visa, unlike Thailand, Vietnam or Bali, Indonesia, which only require a visa on arrival,” said Mary Ann Ong, general manager of immigration for Bridges Travel and Tours.

Even so, the current manpower cannot cope with the return of the Chinese. Ong said she was operating with a lean team already busy with local corporate clients.

The sales director of a hotel in Bohol, who saw an uptick in Chinese tourists before the pandemic, said Chinese individual travelers are returning. However, the hotel will stick to its strategy of owning a mixed market, especially as Europeans and Americans also come in.

She pointed out that Chinese FITs are active in online bookings, and hotels have limited the number of rooms they sell to China due to “many booking channels” that cannot be controlled.

slow and steady
In Singapore, flights to and from China rose to almost 10% of pre-pandemic levels in the months before the market reopened, with improved bookings. As of press time, there are 38 weekly flights between the two countries.

Kwee Wei-Lin, chairman of the Singapore Hotels Association, said: “Before the pandemic, China ranked among the countries with the largest number of international tourists in Singapore for three consecutive years, accounting for nearly 20% of total arrivals in 2019. China has eased Travel restrictions, our member hotels have seen a gradual increase in China bookings. We are cautiously optimistic that this demand will continue to grow in the coming weeks – provided international borders remain open and flight capacity can support demand in China.

“Based on our experience from the reopening of other markets, we can expect the (business events) and corporate travel sectors to pick up before we see the return of Chinese leisure tourists.”

Singapore’s transport minister said air links would be restored cautiously so as not to disrupt operations at Changi Airport.

Indie Singapore Tours founder and chief storyteller Thiam Wei Toh agreed that the return of Chinese tourists must be a “gradual process, especially at the beginning of reopening”.

“People are generally cautious,” he explained. “Additionally, travel patterns and behaviors may have changed during the pandemic.”

Indie Singapore Tours’ business has been “steadily improving”, with tourist bookings increasing as well as traffic from local organisations, schools and groups looking to study tours.

He said: “Like almost everyone in the travel industry, we occasionally experience shortages of trained manpower, but so far our teams have been able to manage the current situation effectively without compromising travel quality. Inquiries and bookings,” he added, adding that he would continue to monitor the situation and adjust operations accordingly.

Kwee believes the team at the Singapore hotel is ready to welcome more guests. Hotels have invested in capacity building throughout the shutdown, working with government agencies and industry partners to upskill and redesign jobs to “be more productive and future-ready”.

“Many hotel members have taken the opportunity to adopt digital solutions and upgrade their facilities in preparation for the return of international guests. When Singapore’s borders reopened last year, our hotels and staff were well prepared to deliver the excellence we are renowned for. Service. As evidenced by the record-breaking F1 weekend, as well as many key business events, we believe the hotel is ready to operate at high occupancy rates when more Chinese guests return,” she elaborated.

She urged Singapore hotels to continue training programs and invest in service innovation so the industry can remain agile to meet the changing expectations of the new generation of international travellers. – Additional reporting by Rosa Ocampo, S Puvaneswary and Mimi Hudoyo

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