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The coronavirus pandemic has crippled the travel industry. But the demand for travel? It is very much alive.
Just look at China, where COVID-19 outbreaks are largely under control. In September, the number of air passengers traveling to China equaled the total for all of last year. This is due to an increase in domestic travel, since international travel remains practically prohibited.
During Fortune World Technology Forum In a virtual conversation Thursday, four travel experts cited China as evidence that global travel could rebound once the pandemic subsides and domestic tourism can serve as a partial milestone for the industry until then. .
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China’s domestic travel boom is driven by “pent-up demand” for international travel, said Craig S. Smith, president of the international group for Marriott International. With cross-border travel still banned, Chinese consumers are choosing destinations in China instead. “They’re all heading to Hainan, Chengdu and Chongqing and wherever they can for a short vacation,” he says.
Other Asian countries, such as Japan and Thailand, are also benefiting from the rise in domestic travel, but not to the same extent as China. “There is still a lot of caution in all of these markets,” said Steve Saxon, partner at McKinsey & Company.
Domestic travel is a less viable alternative to international travel in smaller countries. Singapore, for example, has largely kept the lid on new local coronavirus infections, but it suffers from the downside of being a 280 square mile island with just one commercial airport.
“We don’t have a large domestic tourism market unlike China, Hong Kong or Australia, and therefore the impact has been huge on our tourism industry,” said Keith Tan, Managing Director of Singapore Tourism Board.
In an effort to counter the loss of foreign tourists, the Singapore Tourism Board launched a $ 34 million “Rediscover Singapore” campaign to spark interest in domestic tourism, offering travel packages and various discounts to residents of the island nation.
Jane Sun, chief executive of Trip.com, touted the growth of domestic travel in China. Trip.com, China’s leading online travel agency, reported a quarterly profit this week for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, thanks to domestic demand.
Still, Sun is hoping China is able to create travel bubbles with countries that have the virus under control – Singapore is one.
“We hope that with the joint efforts we have with different travel agencies and efficient governments such as Singapore, we will be able to release some of the energy for pent-up demand,” Sun said.
Singaporeans hoping for an outward journey in 2020 were disappointed earlier this week when Hong Kong and Singapore suspended their “travel bubble” slated until 2021 amid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong. The delay underlines the precarious nature of such solutions.
Panelists agreed that closed international borders remain the main obstacle to the resumption of global travel and that widespread vaccination against COVID-19 is a vital step in overcoming the obstacle.
The UK on Monday became the first Western country to authorize a COVID-19 vaccine. he plans to deploy Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine next week and Trump administration vaccine chief said the entire American population could be vaccinated by June.
Saxon says it is possible for travel to resume between countries in North America and Europe based on cross-recognition vaccination.
“We see a lot of latent demands ready to come back once these borders are opened,” but “any opening of international borders will have to be gradual,” said Saxon asid.
Tan warned that a COVID-19 vaccine would not be a “quick fix” – risk management strategies such as regular testing for the virus will need to be kept in place, and even then the rebound in tourism will likely be gradual.
Marriott’s Smith hopes the vaccine rollout in 2021 will trigger a more robust global recovery for tourism and travel. “Do you know when you wait for this storm to pass?” It feels like we’re getting closer, the vaccine is out there … people really want to go traveling.