Yesterday was the third Monday of January 2021. Amid the general post-Christmas slump many of us feel at the start of the year, the day has become known gloomily as ‘Blue Monday’ due to calculations making it the most depressing day of the year.
However, those in the know in the travel industry will be aware that the science behind the formula is a little flaky. In fact, the day was posited back in 2005 as a PR stunt in the UK to encourage travellers to book holidays. The thinking was, as cold temperatures, long, dark nights, and failed new year’s resolutions get people down, what better time to hit them with some offers of summer sun getaways.
So, what does the situation look like in 2021? A deluge of offers mid-January may seem a little premature. As an industry, do we collectively have the January blues, or are there reasons to be cheerful?
With recent developments in some of our Asia destinations, the truth remains a mixed picture.
A success story that gained international recognition for how the country handled the Coronavirus in 2020, Thailand recently suffered a mini outbreak that threatened to put the brakes on progress. The government has reacted with characteristic swiftness and decisive action, placing restrictions on interprovincial travel and closing evening entertainment venues. There is a system of restriction levels ranging from “maximum controlled areas” to “areas under surveillance” depending on the relative risk of each province. Details for each province and what the levels entail can be found here.
Long story short, the measures seem to have contained the spread. Case numbers have dwindled, and most of the country has remained relatively untouched by the new outbreak, showing that decisive action has once again stemmed the flow. As a result, there is a planned easing of restrictions at the end of January, paving the way for Thailand to continue on the path towards renewed travel.
As Country Manager, Andy Connor, explains, “we can now go back to preventing any further outbreaks, freeing up domestic travel, and working towards opening the international borders again.”
One such recent development is that several golf courses have been made available for quarantine. This allows foreigners to stay at a government-approved golf course as a quarantine facility. Since all international visitors are now able to enter Thailand with a special visa, this may encourage those long-stay tourists who were put off by the idea a lengthy stay in state-approved quarantine hotels.
Andy believes this is another step in the right direction. “Each time there is a new initiative to get tourists back into the country safely, it’s a step closer to borders opening freely for all.”
On a final note, the Thai government has been proactive in ordering doses of the vaccine, though it seems that this will be a drawn-out, staggered process. They plan to inoculate half the population free of charge, beginning with those in high-risk areas. The government has bought 25m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and is negotiating the purchase of a further 35m doses. Whatever the time frame for the widespread inoculation of the population, it’s nonetheless pleasing to see movement in this regard. A little more patience may be required, but the outlook continues to look favourable for Thailand.
The situation in Japan is worsening as the state of emergency has been extended to further prefectures following a rise in cases. Eleven prefectures are now under emergency measures, including Tokyo and most of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
The state of emergency tells companies that they need to reduce their work populations by 70%, encouraging staff to work from home where possible. Residents in the affected prefectures are also urged to avoid non-essential outings. This is complemented with the reduced hours of non-essential businesses like restaurants.
The country is also due to introduce a blanket ban on foreigners entering the country, though this is yet to be announced.
The effects of the measures are yet to be seen, with many commentators stressing the confusion of mixed messages in recent months. Before Christmas, Japanese people were encouraged to travel domestically to boost the economy. Now, the government is asking for common-sense cooperation with the new measures despite a lack of legal enforcement.
The situation is made especially tense as the government insists the Olympics will go ahead later this year in the face of growing scepticism from the wider population.
The government of Japan has been clear in its plans to purchase vaccines and initiate a widespread rollout from late February. However, the country has a complicated history with vaccines, with less than 30% of its population strongly agreeing that vaccines are safe and effective. This may prove an obstacle to overcome in the coming months.
It is difficult to assess the situation in Japan. The government’s insistence that the Olympics can go ahead implies confidence that recent developments are only a minor blip. With vaccines around the corner and effective measures having proved capable in the past, we remind ourselves that a month or two often proves to be a long time. What seems bleak right now may look a lot brighter come spring. We are still hopeful of bringing visitors to Japan in the second half of the year.
Any hopes of an imminent renewal of travel to Malaysia were dashed recently with a surge in Coronavirus cases. The government has responded accordingly with the announcement of strict measures and even declaring a state of emergency to last for 6 months until August. The recent developments in Malaysia have seen several economists slash their growth forecasts for the country in 2021.
Health officials say the current wave of infections could see daily cases grow to as many as 8,000 by May if strict curbs are not imposed. The initial Movement Control Order (MCO) came into effect on 13th January and is due to last 2 weeks. Yet, the situation will continue to be monitored as different states fall under different categories of the MCO. Full details of the measures involved in “MCO 2.0” can be found here.
Update 20th Jan: Malaysia has gone into a nationwide lockdown, except for the state of Sarawak. The new measures will last until 4th February, but may be extended.
On the face of it, this is another blow to a country whose economy desperately needs the boost that renewed tourism would provide. However, the government’s messaging is that the economic hardship of this lockdown will not be as bad as the first as it announced several stimulus packages for Malaysians. The narrative is that strict measures are necessary to overcome this recent surge and emerge in a better position later in the year, hopefully coinciding with a broad rollout of vaccines. As with the other countries featured here, we patiently await the conditions necessary to see renewed international traffic to Malaysia
In recent weeks, we have seen declining numbers of Coronavirus cases in Myanmar. After an outbreak in Autumn last year, the trend is now downwards, from around 1,500 cases per day in October to around 500 each day last week.
In our last country update, we brought news that domestic flights had resumed operations, with a view toward a limited resumption of some form of international travel in the near future.
At first glance, then, we could say that the outlook looks positive for Myanmar. However, we all know that while there may be signs of better things to come, it’s difficult to put a timeframe on when travel may return to pre-pandemic levels. In an industry that has already taken a huge hit, further extensions of pandemic conditions put an ever-present strain on even the industry’s biggest names.
As Khin Thet Mon, Country Manager, informs, “We recently received confirmation of high-profile hotel closures in Myanmar. Sule Shangri-La Yangon announced their temporary closure for nine months, starting on 1st February 2021. Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort also informed us that, due to the impact of COVID-19, they have suspended their hotel operations until further notice. They look forward to working with us again when travel resumes.”
Unfortunately, this is indicative of a broader trend across the travel and hospitality industry as hotel groups cite the ongoing business conditions as reasons for temporary closures. They hope that a temporary closure is best to ensure they are in an excellent position to resume once conditions become more viable.
It seems to be a running theme that, while there is hope on the horizon for the industry, some relief can’t come quick enough for businesses. The messaging across all the countries featured here is that, while immediate conditions are tough, there is an end in sight to the pandemic. As an extension, the imminent implementation of vaccine programs can only speed up the process towards renewed international travel.
Therefore, while we are still very much in the midst of the most challenging period for the industry in memory, we will all prevail with a little more patience. Here’s to hoping.