Mixed reactions to Singapore’s endemic Covid outlook

It may be months before the Singapore government defines the terms for the city-state’s pandemic exit strategy and reopening of borders, following its announcement on Monday to mark Covid-19 endemic once the population is sufficiently vaccinated, but the country’s travel and tourism industry players are happy to welcome progress.

• Singapore’s travel and tourism businesses are ready to transition to endemic state
• Inbound travel recovery will hinge on conditions for vaccinated foreign visitors
• Outbound travel specialists are quickly lining up packages for holiday-starved Singapore residents

It may be months before the Singapore government defines the terms for the city-state’s pandemic exit strategy and reopening of borders, following its announcement on Monday to mark Covid-19 endemic once the population is sufficiently vaccinated, but the country’s travel and tourism industry players are happy to welcome progress.

An outline of an endemic state includes fewer restrictions on social gatherings, larger dine-in groups, and lower requirements and higher capacity for events. Vaccinated individuals will be able to engage in a wider range of social activities and in larger groups, and businesses will not have to shut down premises for deep cleaning whenever new infections surface.

Singapore hotels and inbound travel agencies are ready to transition into a post-pandemic state of travel and tourism – one that could welcome fully vaccinated visitors

And more importantly for Singapore’s travel and tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on international traffic, the government may permit quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated travellers.

Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (NATAS), told TTG Asia that Singapore’s pandemic exit strategy “would mean very tangible economic and social consequences for all of us in travel and tourism, and the wider economy”.

Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association (SHA), regards the government’s plans to ease travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travellers as a “significant move to boost global confidence in Singapore’s appeal as a tourism destination in the new era of travel”.

Both association leaders say their members are ready for the transition.

Kwee emphasised that the pandemic battle requires a “multi-faceted strategy”.

“While our hotels in Singapore are well-equipped with an arsenal of weapons to protect our guests and workforce, we must remain vigilant and nimble in response to this rapidly evolving pandemic. Singapore has one of the highest vaccination rates for the hotel workforce, where over 90 per cent of our colleagues are now fully vaccinated and undergoing routine ART tests. The critical success factor for the safe resumption of travel depends on compliance with public health protocols and our industry’s continuous digital transformation towards contactless yet efficient guest experiences,” she elaborated.

Ler shared that NATAS inbound members are already in contact with overseas partners to understand the needs of international visitors, while working with local suppliers to ensure safe management measures compliance “so that visitors may have a stress-free and seamless service experience” in Singapore.

Inbound concerns
Jameson Wong, APAC director at travel intelligence firm ForwardKeys, regards Singapore’s move to facilitate quarantine-free travel as a “significant one”, largely because it demonstrates to the “rest of the world that we are moving beyond the pandemic, will likely be ready to receive inbound travellers in the near future, and are taking the first steps in creating the foundation of reciprocity in what is otherwise now merely a unilateral bubble”.

However, he sought to temper expectations of a dramatic improvement in international inbound.

“It is not clear at this point if Singapore will allow quarantine-free entry for fully vaccinated foreigners, or limit it to just fully vaccinated Singapore residents who are returning from overseas trips. According to our data, Changi Airport Group’s total passenger traffic in 2019 stood at 68 million pax. We also know for a fact that out of the total, there were approximately 15 million inbound overnight visitors, and 11 million outbound overnight travellers in 2019. We may be looking at an impact on only the outbound overnight segment,” he elaborate.

According to Ler, inbound recovery will also depend on “the corridors of travel protocols, travel formalities, immigration controls and vaccine equities (which) must be unified and friendly enough for people to want to travel again willingly”.

Outbound hopes
For now, expectations around an outbound travel rebound appear more positive.

Once the growing population of vaccinated Singapore residents are no longer faced with compulsory quarantines upon their return from overseas, many will head out to reunite with loved ones and family, projected Alicia Seah, spokesperson of Dynasty Travel.

That first wave of outbound travel will be followed by leisure and short-haul trips. “Travellers will go in small groups with friends and relatives,” Seah said.

Some agencies are lining up tour packages that are suited to changed travelling patterns in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Mabel Cheang, lead executive, business development at Travel Wander, said post-pandemic travellers will choose to stay away from crowds and visit lesser-known places like the countryside or countries where the pace of life is slower with natural social distancing already in place.

She added: “Many would want a slower travelling pace rather than rushing through their holiday, so that they can truly enjoy being in the moment, after having been deprived of a certain amount of freedom for a while.”

“There are also changes in travelling style. Many have picked up a new sport such as cycling, hiking and running during the pandemic to let off some steam, leading them to realise how much they enjoy engaging in such activities. After exploring all they could within their own country, many will start to want to explore another destination, in their preferred way of activity, like cycling or walking.”

While Travel Wander has existing small group cycling, hiking and walking tours to meet that demand, the agency is in the midst of developing a self-guided series of active holidays and has refined its tour operations to make it even more intimate with health and safety measures in place.

ForwardKeys’ Wong, too, share the expectation that Singapore’s easing of entry for vaccinated individuals will have an immediate impact on Singapore’s outbound travel businesses.

“Singaporeans can look forward to travelling to destinations that welcomes us and we can return home without too much of a hassle. Of course, we need to consider which destinations are ready for us. Tourism businesses providing services for farther afield destinations that are more open (to international travellers), such as Europe, will immediately benefit,” said Wong.

Seah: A survey by Dynasty Travel revealed majority of respondents have a wait-and-see approach when it comes to post-pandemic travel

However, Seah warned that rebound in international travel could swing either way for the rest of 2021, as Covid-19 recovery across the world is still too uneven and uncertain.

Sharing results from a travel intention study conducted with Dynasty Travel’s database of 2,000 customers, Seah said 45 per cent of respondents indicated a preference to wait a few months before travelling, even if borders were reopened. Some 33 per cent would travel immediately, while the remaining 22 per cent would wait for a few weeks.

She opined that snap decisions on border restrictions are a main source of traveller uncertainty, and Singapore residents will also be watching how quickly vaccination is progressing in destinations they wish to visit.

Cheang anticipates that demand will be slow for the first few months upon the easing of border measures.

“We do not know if there will be any more variant of the virus. So while we are eager to restart travel, travellers may exercise caution for the first few months upon borders opening up. They may adopt a wait-and-see approach, and let others who are more robust about travel to proceed ahead first,” she said.

Jeremiah Wong, Chan Brothers Travel’s spokesperson, echoed that sentiment. “We expect, at least in the beginning and depending on the eventual measures, outbound travellers may cautiously weigh their decisions to travel based on individual factors such as aversion to perceived risk, health and safety concerns, cost and budget – and this evaluation will vary across different customer segments,” he said.

At the end of the day, agility is the name of the game for business survival during this crisis. Said Chan Brothers Travel’s Wong: “Outbound travel agencies will do well to be fluid, flexible and ready to grasp opportunities whenever they present in line with prevailing authorities’ measures and market sentiments at any given point in time.” – additional reporting by Cheryl Ong

Editor’s note: ForwardKeys has updated referenced data to exclude transfer percentages for clarity.

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