- Chinese holidaymakers will likely return from April, at the earliest
- Visa issues, limited flight capacity and operational challenges faced by Chinese outbound agents will impact recovery
- Manpower challenges in South-east Asia are mixed
South-east Asian travel companies are not expecting an immediate rush of inbound Chinese holidaymakers following China’s milestone reopening to international travel on January 8, citing obstacles like visa applications, operational challenges, and slow return of direct flights.
Malaysia’s main gateways, Kuala Lumpur International Airport and klia2, have helpdesks manned by Mandarin-speaking staff, ready to welcome Chinese tourists. However, Malaysian inbound agents said the number of Chinese travellers is still low, with pick up expected only in 2H2023.
Mint Leong, managing director, Sunflower Holidays, blamed inadequate flights between Malaysia and China, high airfares, and lack of instructions regarding outbound group travel.
Furthermore, Chinese outbound agents need time to rebuild operations. “Many have had to let their staff go and are now facing staffing challenges. I think many agencies in China will get their house in order only after Chinese New Year,” Leong added.
Uzaidi Udanis, president, Malaysian Inbound Tourism Association (MITA), said the initial recovery was being driven in part by Chinese businessmen looking for investment opportunities in Malaysia. Numbers would scale up during China’s Golden Week holidays, which occur thrice every year – during the Chinese New Year, Labour Day break in May and National Day celebrations in October. For this to happen, China’s Covid-19 situation and air connectivity between Malaysia and China must improve.
Resumption of flights necessary
Two Indonesian travel agents are also reserved about their expectations, saying that air access from China needs to improve.
Bambang Sugiono, director of RD Tours, Bali, said news of airlines resuming flights between China and Bali are still absent, while his outbound partners in China have told him that the Chinese are “more eager” to visit Thailand now that travel restrictions are lifted.
“There are available flights to Thailand, and Thailand has been actively promoting itself during the pandemic. Indonesia, unfortunately, slowed down (on destination promotions),” Bambang added.
It would take time before Bali would see big influx of inbound Chinese, he opined.
Christine Kowandi, tour manager of Horas Tours, Medan, said the destination could, for now, rely on connections from the air hubs of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to attract the Chinese.
Oriol Montal, general manager, The Westin Resort Nusa Dua, Bali, is more optimistic, as Bali remains one of China’s top five outbound destinations. He expects Chinese vacationers to stream in by May, when China celebrates its five-day Labour Day holiday. Volume is expected to grow as direct flights to Bali resume.
Manpower is no issue, according to Montal. In order to handle the 2022 G20 Bali summit last November, the hotel has boosted its manpower, including new headcounts in F&B operations.
Over in the Philippines, travel operators are only expecting to see more Chinese holidaymakers in April or May, when there are short holidays for them.
This is because the Philippines “still requires a visa, unlike Thailand, Vietnam or Bali, Indonesia where they only require visa upon arrival”, said Mary Ann Ong, general manager – inbound, Bridges Travel and Tours.
Even then, the current manpower cannot cope with the return of the Chinese. Ong said she is running with a lean team that is already busy with local corporate accounts.
The sales director of a hotel in Bohol, which saw an uptrend in Chinese arrivals pre-pandemic, said Chinese FITs are streaming back. However, the hotel will stick to its strategy of having a mixed market, especially as Europeans and Americans are also coming in.
She pointed out that Chinese FIT online bookings are brisk and cannot be controlled due to “many booking channels”, so the hotel limits the number of rooms they sell to China.
Slowly but steadily
In Singapore, where flights to and from China have ramped up in the months leading to the market’s reopening, reaching almost 10 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, bookings have improved. At press time, there are 38 weekly flights between the two countries.
Kwee Wei-Lin, president of the Singapore Hotel Association, said: “For three consecutive years before the pandemic, China topped the list for Singapore’s international visitor arrivals by country with Chinese travellers attributing to almost 20 per cent of total arrivals in 2019. Since China eased its travel restrictions, our member hotels have seen a gradual increase of Chinese bookings already. We are cautiously optimistic that this demand will continue to grow in the weeks ahead – if international borders remain open and flight capacity can support the Chinese demand.
“Based on our learnings from other market reopenings, we can expect the (business events) and corporate travel segments to pick up before we see the return of Chinese leisure travellers.”
Singapore’s transport minister has said that the resumption of air links will be done cautiously so as not to overwhelm operations at Changi Airport.
Thiam Wei Toh, founder and chief storyteller of Indie Singapore Tours, agrees that the return of Chinese travellers will have to be a “gradual process, especially at the start of the reopening”.
“People are being generally cautious,” he explained. “Also, travel patterns and behaviours may have changed during the pandemic.”
Business for Indie Singapore Tours has been “steadily improving”, with an increase in tourist bookings as well as traffic from local organisations, schools and groups wanting learning journeys.
“Like almost everyone in the travel industry, we face the occasional crunch in trained manpower, but so far, our team has been able to effectively manage the current volume of enquiries and bookings without compromising the quality of our tours,” he said, adding that he would continue to monitor the situation and adapt operations accordingly.
Kwee believes Singapore hotels have teams ready to welcome even more guests. Hotels have invested in capability building throughout their downtime, worked with government agencies and industry partners on upskilling and job redesigning to “improve productivity and become future ready”.
“Many hotel members took the opportunity to adopt digital solutions and upgraded their facilities in preparation for the return of international guests. When Singapore’s border reopened last year, our hotels and workforce were well prepared to deliver the hospitality excellence that we are renowned for. As evidenced by the record-breaking F1 weekend, as well as many significant business events, we are confident that hotels are prepared to operate at high occupancy when more Chinese guests return,” she detailed.
She urged Singapore hotels to continue with training programmes and investment in service innovation so that the industry can remain nimble in catering to the evolving expectations of a new generation of international travellers. – Additional reporting by Rosa Ocampo, S Puvaneswary and Mimi Hudoyo