In an absorbing session during the TFWA Asia Pacific Hainan Special Edition (21-24 June), travel and travel retail industry associations explored the multi-layered and complex issues facing international travel’s restart.
‘The future for travel & tourism’ session held on Tuesday 22 June (10:25-11:25 CET) featured contributions from Stefano Baronci, Director General of Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific; Sarah Branquinho, President of Duty Free World Council (DFWC); Conrad Clifford, Regional Vice President Asia Pacific of International Air Transport Association (IATA); Sunil Tuli, President, Asia Pacific Travel Retail Association (APTRA); and Soon-Hwa Wong, Chairman of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
The hour-long session addressed the big picture issues facing the travel industry, from so-called ‘vaccination passports’ to the essential role played by duty free & travel retail in the recovery phases.
QUARANTINING IS ‘SIGNIFICANT DETERRENT’
APTRA’s Sunil Tuli began by stating unequivocally in an exchange with moderator and TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer that the priority objective is resurrecting travel.
The main challenge, Tuli suggested, is travel will not resume in a familiar manner until quarantines are lifted.
APTRA have written to governments in the region to state that the business needs to restore, impressing on them the importance of DF&TR to the entire travel ecosystem,
Updating viewers, Tuli said APTRA has put forward a joint representation with the likes of ACI, PATA and IATA and have collectively asked what travel and travel retail associations can do to assist once the situation begins to return to normality.
The joint paper highlights that each party has a role to play in understanding what measures airports, airlines and other stakeholders can take to protect the passenger journey.
“That’s what we are working on with governments right now and we are going to make a presentation on this in the next few weeks I hope and let’s see what happens,” said Tuli. “We’ve got to work with governments to engage and explain that travel retail, as much as other travel [industries], is as important in this whole ecosystem.”
Soon-Hwa Wong, Chairman of PATA pointed to the ‘rather uneven’ government efforts across the region with respect to the supporting the industry.
Asked about so-called ‘vaccine passports’ such as the IATA Travel Pass, he said these will help to open up travel, but a great deal more clarity is needed.
“If we look at the vaccines itself, governments are not fully in agreement on what kind of vaccines are proof,” he observed. “There is still a lot work to be done but it’s a step in the right direction. The most challenging thing is how to harmonise all the health and safety protocols.”
DFWC’s Branquinho identified a combination of problems. While a great deal of effort is being made to speed up mechanisms for travel, there exists a challenge around intra-operability and the types of vaccine passes and solutions being suggested.
“That is coming at the same as the problem that society is increasingly focusing on personal liberty and has been for the last three or four years – not discriminating one group against the other. In this case, the vaccinated versus the non-vaccinated.”
Quarantining is the single biggest deterrent to travelling, Branquinho stated. Things have not been made easier by the ‘politicisation’ of travel, citing the UK and the myriad set of different rules around testing procedures mixed with the need to quarantine on arrival.
“We’re hearing that is going to be lifted, possibility for double-vaccinated travellers, so that’s a glimmer of light but at the moment the big questions are around the conundrum of civil liberties, plus intra-operability of the systems being suggested, and quarantining.”
VACCINES: THE GAME CHANGERS
ACI Asia-Pacific’s Stefano Baronci observed that airports have been working hard to restart with more than 70 of them having joined the ACI Airport Health Accreditation Programme.
This confirms a level of compliance with health and safety guidelines, he outlined.
The peculiarity of the region means quarantine restrictions and sequential testing are still very common, he went on to say.
He said that while vaccines will be the game changer, only 7.5% of the population in Asia have received two vaccinations, meaning the region is still lagging behind compared with other parts of the world.
“When we look at China, about 16% of the population has been vaccinated with two shots,” he explained. “We’re talking about 220 million people, a big number per-se and higher than in the US but still limited per portion of the entire population.
“If we narrow down to key aviation markets from India and Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia… all of them have populations that has been vaccinated with two jabs below 5%. In Japan, the percentage is 7%.
“In my opinion governments should invest more and they are investing more. From our perspective the opportunity to learn from experiences that are tested in Europe and US not to miss the summer will be very important.
“The Middle East should also be factored in as countries that are trying to reopen as they are more dependent on transfer traffic.”
PATA’s Wong was asked about his forecast for regional passenger volumes this year.
He observed that 2021 will continue to be a difficult year, with the next half not offering too much promise and PATA is not too optimistic of a meaningful recovery this year.
While Asia Pacific is managing Covid-19 better than most regions, governments tend towards more conservative policy making.
“They are far more conservative right now compared to what is happening in Europe in the US – it will be a carefully, calibrated approach as public health has to come first. The vaccination rate is rather disappointing. On average, less than 10% have been vaccinated.
“It will be a long way to go before we reach the 70%-80% mark to get some form of herd immunity. Only then, will governments be willing to open up more.”
As such, he pointed to the importance of speeding up the vaccination programme, but there are factors affecting the rollout.
“Vaccination is the first and most important factor in the reopening. If countries have a higher rate, the openings will be faster.”
CONFUSION OVER ‘TRAVEL PASSES’
IATA’s Conrad Clifford then provided an update on the IATA Travel Pass, the digital health certificate that simultaneously acts to enable contactless travel, providing information to airports, airlines and other authorities to verify and certify passengers’ health credentials.
As a personal, secure digital wallet solution it can be used by passengers to obtain and store their Covid-19 test results from accredited laboratories.
It also tells them the health requirements for the country they are visiting and make arrangements to comply with the necessary protocols.
Over 40 airlines have trialled it to date around the world and the app has received tremendous take up, according to Clifford.
“We’ve done a lot of trials and need governments to buy in to it. We have around four or five governments that have bought in so far and there are more to come. But it doesn’t guarantee the opening of a route and we need governments to make that happen.
“It’s very difficult to find governments that are willing to open their borders to one other from a health perspective. They need to feel very secure that if they open their borders to another country they won’t increase the risk of transmission. The number one challenge is getting governments to feel comfortable in terms of opening their borders to one another.”
Asked by John Rimmer whether there is now a ‘dawning acceptance’ that steps need to be taken to kickstart travel and that the Travel Pass can help to achieve this, Clifford agreed and cited the delayed Singapore-Hong Kong air travel bubble due to spikes in infection rates as one example.
Discussion then turned to the importance of DF&TR to the travel experience and ensuring authorities are aware of the role that companies in the sector can play in the recovery.
While a lot of work is being done, the approach is ‘disjointed’. In Europe, while there is openness towards embracing a uniform digital pass the decision of adoption rests with each member state, which relies on the guidance of health authorities.
More broadly, individual countries retain a desire to protect their own borders and making their own decisions and the approach to travel retail has been varied.
“Looking at the aviation ecosystem there has been a definite tendency to supporting airlines rather than airports and retailers don’t come into that equation in lots of cases.
“We were very pleased to have support from ICAO to make sure that duty free retail is considered an essential retail part in re-opening airports. Airports are looking to recoup their revenues and DF&TR will be a strong part of that.”
Branquinho disagreed with suggestions that customers are worried about shopping, responding that what is being observed is passengers are happy to browse and shop and that there remains a pent-up demand to travel and buy.
Responding to a question on ensuring non-aviation revenue and particularly income from duty free is put front of mind in the recovery, Baronci acknowledged there remains work to do to ensure there are synergies between associations to ensure an attractive solution is proposed to partners such as airlines after the pandemic.
APTRA’s Tuli flagged that there still exists confusion over the applicability of travel passes, particularly when it comes to establishing occupancy rates for hotels where travellers must serve their quarantine.
“There is a lot of confusion at the moment. We need to get the message out on what these things mean. What is the travel pass and where they are accepted in which countries. It’s a lot of work to be done to educate people so they can understand what is going on and travel when the time is right.”
IATA’s Clifford responded by acknowledging the huge challenge that exists in responding to the constantly changing situation, with governments shifting their positions in terms of the sort of testing permitted, when they can be undertaken, and what sort of vaccine(s) is acceptable.
“We badly need to come up with global standards. We’ve been pushing ICAO and WHO as much as we can to try to make some sense on this but we are not there yet and this will take some time. This has been further confused by the rise of new variants as all the rules change again.”