DestinationsAt this week's WiT Experience Week, destination experts share their businesses’ Covid-19 pains and pivots to ride out this pandemic.

Views from the ground: Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Vietnam

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WIT's Yeoh Siew Hoon and Seera Group's Muzzammil Ahussain in a lively virtual exchange of views during WiT Experience Week.
WIT's Yeoh Siew Hoon and Seera Group's Muzzammil Ahussain in a lively virtual exchange of views during WiT Experience Week.

As the world hits the restart button, leading travel agency heads from Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and Vietnam joined Web in Travel (WiT) 2020’s ‘Postcard from’ series and shared their businesses’ Covid-19 pains and pivots to ride out this pandemic.

Here's a look at the highlights from this trio of destinations:

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Photo Credit: Getty Images

Saudi Arabia: refining tourism products behind closed doors

Covid-19 may have thrown a spanner in the works for Saudi Arabia to open the country to tourism, but the pandemic also gives the country a chance to fine-tune its tourism offerings while it awaits the world to open up again.

In late 2019, Saudi Arabia launched a new visa system for 49 countries as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious reform strategy to diversify the kingdom’s oil-reliant economy. Due to Covid, the country had to close its borders to inbound traffic from at least 25 countries since end February, and in March a full ban on travel in-and-out was implemented.

Like most other countries, Saudi Arabia's pivot to domestic tourism has led to the birth of a barrage of new experiences for locals to explore the kingdom, and also leading to discovery and development of second- and third-tier areas in the country.

In the case of Seera Group, the travel agency signed a deal with a local SME tour operator specialising in adventure, hiking and kayaking activities to offer novel experiences for the market.

“We have partnered with the Red Sea cruise company; many of you’ve heard that Saudi Arabia launched a luxury cruise over the last two months, and it’s been a tremendous success,” says Muzzammil Ahussain, executive vice president, consumer travel at Seera Group.

The Seera Group also zeroed in on using self-generated videos, live Instagram stories, Snapchat and YouTube channels to educate and create interest among local travellers. WhatsApp bots were created so customers would have easy access to travel activities and packages in Saudi Arabia.

While borders remain closed, Ahussain maintains that human capital building remains key in the tourism sector to make sure all workers, from tour guides to health and safety certified providers, are ready to support the inbound market when it recovers.

Already, the country is beginning to reopen for business, beginning with the gradual resumption of Umrah after nearly a six-month hiatus. The first phrase from 4 October will grant 6,000 pilgrims per day, divided into 12 groups over 24 hours. Two weeks later, as of 18 October, the kingdom will allow 40,000 pilgrims a day.

However, Ahussain says these Umrah measures are strictly for domestic residents and citizens only as “procedures on inbound [travels] for the purpose of religious tourism is not yet finalised”.

Taipei, Taiwan
Taipei, Taiwan Photo Credit: Getty Images

Taiwan: domestic tourism puts a strain on outlying islands

In Taiwan, there are few signs that the rest of the world is in the grip of a raging pandemic. With only one suspected case linked to local transmission since mid-April, domestic tourism has come roaring back to life on the island.

What tourism players have observed is the greater interest among Taiwanese to seek out the great outdoors and less crowded places, not unlike what have been seen elsewhere.

“People now prefer the outdoors, travelling for instance to Hualien and Taitung since they feel safe and clean," says Gina Tsai, head of legal and government affairs, MyTaiwanTour. "Minsu [Taiwanese B&B] are preferred—in fact, the Minsu Trade Association said that business grew more than 20% in the past two months as compared with 2019."

But with the surge of visitor foot traffic to Taiwan's outlying islands, local governments soon found themselves caught in a balancing act of tourism promotion and environmental protection, according to Tsai.

The pent-up demand of Taiwanese travellers, which reached 17 million in outbound passenger traffic in 2019, led to an influx of visitors at popular destinations when domestic travel was allowed to resume on 20 June. For example, Green Island—a tiny area of just 15 square kilometres and 2,000 residents—received over 60,000 visitors over 11 days from 15 to 25 July.

“You can imagine there wasn’t enough drinking water, food supply, electricity and the disposal of rubbish also became [an issue],” Tsai remarks. According to her, the government has since been encouraging locals to head to the mountains in a bid to divert visitor traffic to less crowded places.

In contrast, Taipei is seeing lesser interest from the local market due to perceptions of the city as being a crowded place, Tsai notes. To that end, Taipei hotels have been collaborating with travel agencies including MyTaiwanTour to create “high-quality tours” to differentiate themselves in the domestic marketplace.

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam Photo Credit: Getty Images

Vietnam: quicker path to digitalisation for travel companies

Vietnam's swift and full lockdown paved for its success to control the spread of the disease—and a quicker reopening of its domestic tourism sector than other countries in the region.

After the country lifted its national lockdown on 22 April, by the third week of May “we saw hundreds of thousands leaving their cities and travelling to neighbouring cities—a trend that continued into July. River cruises were also full over the weekends; domestic travel was at 120% compared to last year,” said Kien Tran Trong, CEO and chairman, Thien Minh Group (TMG).

Danang's mystery virus outbreak in July, however, put an abrupt halt to Vietnam's tourism recovery, but the country's rigorous efforts to contain the contagion through aggressive testings and state quarantines soon quelled the second viral wave.

"And now for 24 days we’ve had no new cases in community spread…domestically we’re getting more confidence in travel, although not the same as in July yet," Kien notes.

A silver lining of the pandemic for TMG, whose portfolio also spans hospitality, destination management and aviation sectors, is achieving 20% of online market share by end July—a goal that was initially set for 2023. Trong attributes the shortened time to achieve the company's digital goals to accelerated shift of the market to online and the natural advantages it enjoys as a locally founded player over foreign OTAs entering Vietnam.

“Having our office here in five cities [meant] we managed to handle the first wave of cancellations better. We were also a lot quicker in coming up with available services, creating 1,500 new products that were more suitable for the Vietnamese market right in April during lockdown. Also, being able to continue being able to connect with communities gives us a massive advantage.”

Trong, who is also chairman of Vietnam Tourism Board, shares that the country is currently looking at green lane discussions with safe countries in the region, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and some parts of China.

Other areas include “shorter quarantines, [allowing] investors and people who need to travel for work into Vietnam... [We’re also] looking at testing before and on arrivals, and the ability to go into certain areas”.

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