Skift Take

The vaccine rollout is fueling optimism among Asia-Pacific’s travelers and the region’s travel industry. But until inoculations are widespread and the right systems for recognizing official health documents are in place globally, extra layers of protection — such as testing — remain key to traveler health and safety.

While fluctuating Covid-19 cases continue to stall the restart of global travel — including the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble and travel plans for the upcoming Lunar New Year — the impending wide-reaching rollout of vaccines has brought a much needed dose of hope to travelers and the travel industry for 2021.

In its December 2020 forecast, The Asian Development Bank predicted that economic activity in Asia-Pacific will expand by 6.8 percent in 2021, contingent on vaccine development and execution. Additionally, in November 2020, Moody’s Analytics chief APAC economist, Steve Cochrane, stated that Asia-Pacific is leading the global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, though a full economic recovery will only take place when the vaccine is widely available and international travel and tourism returns.

While domestic travel appears to be faring well in the region, international air travel continues to face challenges. Todd Handcock, president of Collinson Asia-Pacific, a global leader in travel risk management and medical assistance, and owner and operator of Priority Pass, says: “When looking at our Asia-Pacific lounge visit data for May to December 2020, 75 percent of visits were domestic, and the remaining 25 percent international. When we compare this to the same period in 2019, domestic made up just 13 percent of our region’s total lounge visits.”

He explained that though overall figures are down year-over-year, certain domestic travel markets in Asia-Pacfic appear to have weathered the Covid-19 storm relatively well. “Countries such as Vietnam and Thailand — where Covid-19 cases have remained relatively low and domestic destinations are plentiful — have reported 2020 domestic lounge visit rates comparative to 96.8 percent and 82.7 percent of the previous year’s visit rates, for May through to December,” he said.

With governments around the world continuing to announce new, ever-more restrictive measures for international travel — such as Hong Kong’s rumoured 14-day mandatory quarantine for air crew — it’s hard to predict what the coming months will hold from a travel recovery perspective.

However, Lee Lik Hsin, Singapore Airlines’ executive vice president, commercial, believes there is still reason for hope: “There are some early signs of optimism about a recovery. Our customers say that they are increasingly confident about air travel, given the robust health and safety measures that are in place, as well as testing regimes designed to better protect them and our staff. The roll-out of vaccines will also help to boost confidence and support the reopening of borders.” Lik Hsin’s insights reflect recent moves by countries such as Singapore, in which restrictions could potentially soon be eased in a safe and gradual manner.

Why Vaccine Roadmaps Could Signal a Long Road Ahead in Asia-Pacific

A further reason for optimism is the impending rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across Asia-Pacific, despite great variation in how countries in the region have approached production, procurement, and delivery. Singapore was the first country in the region to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, beginning with healthcare workers on December 30. It expects to begin vaccinating the elderly in February, and hopes to have enough vaccines for all residents by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, Hong Kong will begin its mass vaccination program in February, allowing residents to choose their preferred option from the AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Indonesia is electing to vaccinate its working population ahead of the elderly, in a bid to attain herd immunity and support the nation’s economy, while Japan will likely have a slower rollout due to low rates of vaccine confidence among residents.

Widespread Testing Remains Critical 

Of course, any forward progression of a vaccine is exciting news after the challenges of 2020. But the emergence of a vaccine alone doesn’t mean that travel will return overnight. As Collinson’s Handcock says, “There’s still a complex road ahead of us. Every country will have its own vaccination journey, and when you add travel into the equation, there will also need to be clear and agreed protocols in place for countries to be able to verify vaccination records from overseas travelers. Countries won’t be ready to loosen travel bans and quarantine periods until they can trust the health data. This is why collaboration between governments, the travel industry, and wider businesses remains critical to set-up an effective infrastructure that enables the long-term, safe return of global travel.” This is especially true for Asia-Pacific, which sees high levels of intra-regional air travel and transport due to its geographical makeup.

Fortunately, testing is becoming increasingly accessible, and programs offering Covid-19 testing — such as the one Collinson recently announced in partnership with Singapore Airlines, and has been managing for other leading airlines globally — are increasingly helping to safely reopen key travel routes. More than 100,000 Covid-19 tests have been conducted to date by Collinson, which is also working in partnership with the UK government to support the Test to Release scheme, as well as London Heathrow Airport, London Luton Airport, London City Airport, and Manchester Airports Group in the UK, which includes Stansted, Manchester, and East Midlands Airports, to conduct pre-flight testing at airports. “While we’re seeing fantastic strides globally with the vaccine, we still expect testing to be our best opportunity to create safe and workable travel bubbles both for tourists and business travelers,” added Handcock.

The Upside to Global Travel Being Turned Upside-Down

While it appears that the safe, long-term recovery of travel won’t be immediate in Asia-Pacific, there are those who believe that when it does return it will be better than ever before. As Handcock explains, “Travelers will not only be met with enhanced health and safety standards, but a more optimized, personalized, and digitized airport journey: think pre-booked security time slots to avoid the line, new artificial intelligence tools that speed along the check-in process, and digital solutions that let travelers order food, book a lounge space, and shop for duty-free products all from the convenience of their smartphone.”

For a business traveler, a revamped experience could include access to Collinson’s new bundle of solutions that include regular Covid-19 testing, a 24/7 medical helpline, and Priority Pass lounge access, which were developed to support Asia-Pacific businesses in addressing the complexities of Covid-era corporate travel.

Singapore Airlines has also taken a number of steps to rethink its experience to reassure its passengers. Measures such as temperature checks and basic health screenings now take place prior to boarding. As Lik Hsin explains, “We have leveraged digital technology to reinvent the air travel journey with passenger health and safety top of mind. We’ve adapted in-flight products and end-to-end service delivery, stepped up cleaning measures, and focused on quality contact instead of prolonged contact to provide additional health and safety assurances to our customers and our staff members.” The airline also recently confirmed that as of January 2021, all of their crew members, including pilots, gate agents, flight attendants, and any other individual that comes into contact with passengers, will have been offered free coronavirus vaccines by the Singaporean government.

Mandarin Oriental is another company that’s reimagining the traveler experience while prioritizing guest health and safety. The company launched its “We Care” program early in the pandemic, which outlines stringent protocols designed to safeguard the comfort, health, and safety of guests and employees. As Kristin Ruble, group vice president, brand and experience marketing for Mandarin Oriental explained, “The ‘We Care’ program seamlessly connects our safety enhancements to each guest’s stay. Beyond air filtration systems and PPE, our booking and pre-arrival communications detail our enhanced hygiene measures which immediately assuage any safety concerns.”

In addition to health and safety enhancements, Mandarin Oriental saw the need to be more flexible with its reservation policies due to constantly changing travel restrictions. It implemented its “Booking With Confidence” policy in response, which provides highly flexible policies for changing or cancelling individual reservations at its hotels worldwide. As travel recovery timelines become clearer, travellers will no doubt keep in mind — and prioritize — the brands that went above and beyond to reward, reassure and reconnect with them during this difficult period.

Despite all of the hardships brought on by Covid-19, it has undoubtedly forced the travel industry to evolve to deliver an enhanced traveler experience. While Asia-Pacific — and the rest of the world — awaits the widespread application of the vaccine, as well as the development and implementation of protocols that allow countries to verify vaccination records, Covid-19 testing will remain key to enabling Asia’s travelers to get back to doing what they love.

This content was created collaboratively by Collinson and Skift’s branded content studio, SkiftX.

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Tags: apac, collinson, covid-19, mandarin oriental, singapore airlines, SkiftX Showcase: Aviation, SkiftX Showcase: Hospitality, travel recovery