Ep 29: Travel Anxiety & the Enduring COVID Fear Factor

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About This Episode

22 Jul 2020 • 37m13s

This week, Gary and Hannah zone-in on a persistent COVID-19 pressure point: consumer sentiment and the travel fear factor.

How are fear and anxiety impacting domestic tourism, and shaping attitudes towards border re-openings and the prospects for inbound and outbound travel?

Featuring examples from Cambodia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia, plus China, Japan and India, the discussion dives deep into the fearful factors discouraging travel bookings.

Against this gloomy backdrop, will the Oxford and Chinese vaccine trials prove an inflection point that reveals fragments of light after 7 dark, unforgiving months for travel and tourism?

Show notes

1:24 Flight booking data from Embraer shows booking trends from Jan - Jul this year.

“We’re looking at booking down by 90% to places like Bangkok and Jakarta.” (Hannah)

“When you look at that as a general figure for first 7 months of the year, it’s pretty daunting” (Gary)

“The only brightside in this is Ho Chi Minh City, which is down just 6%.” (Hannah)

“Regardless the stage in the infection curve, consumer sentiment remains persistently downbeat everywhere. Confidence is still down exerting a massive drag on the recovery even in countries emerging from the stasis engendered by containment measures with an apparent feeling that the corner has been turned.”

“The gap between capacity recovery and consumer fearfulness is evident. There is a clear mismatch between what the industry hopes for and what will be achieved as demand has dried up.” (Victor Vieira dos Santos, Marketing Director at Embraer, based in Singapore.)

3:35 Reason 1 behind COVID-related travel fears: The resurgence of COVID-19, particularly in destinations which were thought of as virus-free, such as Japan, Australia, Iran and Beijing.

“One this wave has come back, it’s affected sentiment, and people are fearing getting sick.” (Gary)

“The Beijing outbreak caused fear of course across China […] that resonated across SE Asia as everyone was looking at the Chinese market to come back.” (Gary)

5:19 Indonesia and the Philippines are still struggling to contain their first wave, and approaching milestones.

“Indonesia is on the cusp of having 90,000 cases, Philippines is on the cusp of having 70,000 cases, Singapore on the cusp of 50,000 cases.” (Gary)

6:03 Long-haul markets to SE Asia are also struggling to fight COVID-19: the USA, UK, Europe.

“There’s that worry that even the long-haul markets don’t have it under control.” (Hannah)

7:20 Looking at the YouGov tracker for fear of catching COVID-19 across SE Asia.

“Thailand actually had one of the lowest levels of catching COVID in SE Asia, about 59% were either very or somewhat afraid of catching COVID, whilst other countries like Vietnam, which is a country that we really think of as having the virus completely under control, no real social distancing there right now, their fear is 77%.” (Hannah)

“Even within SE Asia, there is this really disparate range of fear, which doesn’t seem to go hand-in-hand with how well the virus has been handled.” (Hannah)

9:05 Reason 2: societal factors. Across the region, there are still restrictions on daily living, on our movements, mask-wearing is normal.

“You have those issues which are still feeding into the feeling of “We are not back to normal”.” (Gary)

“There’s a general social nervousness, particularly about flying, trains, buses, even getting into elevators - you do see caution.” (Gary)

“Maybe attitudes have changed towards interaction and distancing, and this is going to impact travel.” (Gary)

10:43 Reason 3: the negative language we are using surrounding COVID-19. For example, bans, closures, quarantines, social distancing, 2nd, 3rd, 4th waves…

“That doesn’t help either, when you’re constantly reading this negative wording in the news and talking about it with friends and family.” (Hannah)

“Phrases and words which are essentially quite well-meaning can be turned negative. So this phrase “clusters” has emerged into the vernacular over the last few months […] the use of the word clusters was originally meant to mean that they are quite small, quite localised and probably aren’t likely, unless things go badly wrong, to go further. But this has now been turned into a negative: well, we have clusters in our country therefore it’s a bad thing.” (Gary)

“The terminology is feeding into the anxiety that everybody is feeling.” (Gary)

“Sanitised stays don’t sound like fun.” (Hannah)

13:35 The vaccine trials do seem to be provoking some antibody reactions.

“That’s probably the best piece of news the travel industry has had for a long time.” (Gary)

“It could be that inflection point which turns anxiety and fear into realism.” (Gary)

“When you’re in that mindset, you don’t want to make anything worse. So you’ve been under lockdown, and you think about, “If I let tourists in, and then it spreads again, I’m going to have to go into lockdown, so maybe my life is just better, with these restrictions. Yes, our tourism businesses don’t have money but at least I have personal freedom, I can go outside, my children can go to school.” That’s all playing into it.” (Hannah)

15:39 COVID-fear example 1: returnee issues. Residents needing to be on high alert due to people escaping from quarantine, or just returnees back to the country with a high incidence of COVID.

Gary wrote this week: “The latest twist in the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 travel downturn is a fear of imported infections via returnees from overseas - some of whom are transiting in other SEA countries.”

“These kind of things do not provoke confidence.” (Hannah)

“There’s this wider issue of how people are being allowed onto flights who have the virus. That’s not what we were promised.” (Gary)

18:10 COVID-fear example 2: Rayong and the loopholes where certain categories of people do not need to be quarantined on arrival to a country.

“Bookings collapsed in Rayong, but also on one of the islands nearby, which is about a 1.5 hour boat ride away, Koh Samet.” (Gary)

“That shows just how fragile these incidents are to the psyche of travellers who would think about going there - they are just so easily spooked nowadays.” (Hannah)

19:45 Anne Sonamas, TTG Asia Correspondent for Thailand, posted comments on Linkedin from Dr. Taweesilp Wisanuyotin, spokesman of Thailand’s Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration who apologized for “setting unrealistic expectations."

Seeing the panic and fear that ensued, followed by 80-100% cancelled trip bookings at many hotels in Rayong province over the imported Covid case that slipped into a Rayong hotel. He said, “We may have set the wrong expectation by placing our emphasis on days free of cases of local transmission, and counting the number of days that we have been Covid-free, telling you every day that we have 0 new local cases. It’s been over 50 days now free of local transmission, but with the level of Covid that there is in the world now, it’s nearly impossible that we could make it to 100 days or 1000 days with 0 incidents. So from now on, we will stop counting and emphasizing this number. It’s not paramount. We need to learn to live with Covid, and co-exist with the disease.”

“This is so key, and really illustrates the different policies which governments have taken. When we went into lockdown, and this is pretty much universal, it was about flattening the curve. It was not about eradicating COVID, it was about flattening the curve so that medical services were not overwhelmed. Somewhere along the line, that narrative, goal, has changed and now it seems to be that you need to be a COVID-free country. That goal is almost impossible” (Hannah)

“Now governments have to change track and have to think about tracking and tracing, and following those procedures much more strictly, rather than shouting about being COVID-free.” (Hannah)

“It’s been a huge learning curve […] this is unprecedented, but not just in the way it’s affected everybody’s lives […] but how to get out of this problem.” (Gary)

22:59 COVID-fear example 3: governments dampening expectations. Singapore’s National Development Minister said that outbound travel may not be possible this year and that the overall advisory is to not travel.

“If that is the case for Singapore, then the government will need to look seriously at how to support these outbound travel agencies as without this support, they will collapse by 2021.” (Hannah)

“Yes, you have to be realistic as a leader, but you have to give hope.” (Hannah)

“One of the things which the Singaporean government has done throughout this crisis is run a very good communications programme.” (Gary)

“If you tell people they won’t be able to travel internationally for some time, they will consider domestic, so there may be something of that there.” (Gary)

26:07 Malaysia’s PM warning the public that if case numbers increase, a lockdown could be imposed again and face mask wearing could be made mandatory.

“This was using the fear factor to shake a little more discipline into the country.” (Gary)

“It’s a balance between a healthy economy or a healthy population.” (Hannah)

28:08 Thailand thinks a travel rebound will be delayed until after a vaccine is found, taking a pessimistic view.

28:48 The Philippines trying to be upbeat. The Philippines Tourism Congress president Jose C. Clemente III said:

“As the community quarantine marches into its fourth month, clients, both domestic and foreign tourists, are now antsy and want to resume normal routines like traveling. In listening to our partners overseas, the demand for the Philippines continues to be strong and interest remains high. We just really need to get our numbers under control. That’s what international markets are looking for, destinations that have a good grasp on how to deal with the pandemic.”

“In reality, if you’ve got a bad reputation for mismanagement of the crisis, then your chances of future tourists, at least in the short-term, will be dashed.” (Hannah)

“The idea that tourists will come as soon as the situation is under control, unfortunately I just don’t think is realistic.” (Hannah)

“The oft-quoted phrase is that the chain of protection is only as strong as its weakest link, and wherever you have in our region, weakest links, anything could bring it back.” (Hannah)

30:41 Fear of outsiders and whether that public fear will shape government policy.

“94.5% of Thai people believe foreigners should be barred from entering the country.” (Hannah)

“There is this fear of outsiders, whether returning citizens or foreigners, and that the virus could come with them.” (Gary)

32:23 Japan and public opinion on whether the Olympics should be held in 2021.

“Only 23% of people want the delayed Tokyo 2021 Olympics to go ahead.” (Gary)

33:43 Our readers’ comments:

Guillem Luna de Diego, a Front desk, Reservations and Beverage Supervisor based in Chiang Mai, Thailand: “I would say misinformation with the lack of coordination amongst governments are not helping travellers, neither going back home nor recovering travel industry trustability.”

Salome Villaflor, General Manager at Halong Paradise Suites Hotel in Vietnam: “We’ve heard reports of people entering the country on special permit who tested positive, so it’s indeed a big deterrent. Tourism recovery now depends on vaccine or cure. I’ve seen how SARs hit the industry before, little did I know it was nothing but a walk in the park against COVID now.”

Tim Russell, a Bangkok-based travel digital marketer: “The biggest problem is key overseas markets such as the US & UK not being willing or able to get their act together! SE Asia is pretty much ready to welcome visitors, but as long as certain countries refuse to deal with the virus, the borders won’t reopen.”

Resources

YouGov COVID-19 fears link HERE

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