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Why the past is not the future for Asian tourism

24th December 2020 The Business Times

By Rakesh Patel

IN THE past, many of us would have been heading to the airport over the Christmas holidays and flying off to visit family, relax on the beach or hit the slopes. Very few of us will be doing so this year but, with Covid-19 vaccines set to be rolled out in Singapore and across the region next year, international travel will start to recover in 2021.

But the post-pandemic travellers will be more intentional, greener and more focused on their wellbeing. For many, seclusion and a meaningful encounter with different places and people will be more appealing than a return to the same crowded resorts and generic luxury hotels. Catering to this shift is an opportunity – and a responsibility – for the hospitality industry in the region.


Now that vaccines are bringing international tourism back into sight, two critical factors will determine how fast it will recover and what it will look like in the future.

First, what will persuade people that it is safe to board an aeroplane and travel to another country?

And, second, what kind of experience does the newly-vaccinated travellers want to have when they go overseas again?

Let’s be clear: travel will recover. People have made do with staycations and Netflix, but the appetite to experience new places is a long-term structural trend that is not going away. In mainland China, there were more domestic flights this September than in the same month last year.

And there are signs that travellers from the world’s largest outbound tourism market will soon be ready to venture overseas again. The China Outbound Tourism Research Institute predicts that Chinese citizens will make 100 million international trips in 2021. That isn’t bad in the wake of a global pandemic, even if it is some way behind the 169 million overseas trips recorded in 2019.

But while there is clearly a latent hunger to travel, I believe people will be very cautious about international trips at first. They are not going to board international flights until there is broad and effective use of vaccines: avoiding the risk of infection is going to be the top priority for some time yet. I do expect that we will turn the corner next year, but I don’t see travel in the Asia-Pacific returning to its pre-Covid-19 highs until 2023.


As international travel picks up again, it will be different. For the first time in recent memory, people with the means to do so have not been able to simply jump on a plane and go to Bali, Niseko or Sri Lanka.

When you see international travel as a privilege, rather than something you take for granted, you are going to think more carefully about how you exercise that privilege.

This ‘Covid perspective’ is going to accelerate an existing trend towards more intentional and meaningful travel, coalescing with the shift towards greater environmental and social consciousness that is gathering momentum around the world.

That means travellers’ preferences will change. They will want to minimise their negative impact on the climate. They will want their trip to benefit the community around where they stay.

So I expect the post-Covid traveller to go overseas less frequently, but to stay for longer at accommodation that is more environmentally sustainable and which provides opportunities for local businesses and people.

Indeed, a global survey by last year showed that 72 per cent of travellers intend to stay in eco-friendly or green accommodation.

As well as reminding us about the privilege of international travel, Covid-19 has of course provided us with a stark lesson about the importance of our health.

People will be more motivated than ever to take care of their physical and mental wellbeing. Natural treatments, therapies and practices that promote holistic wellness, better immunity and greater longevity – think yoga, meditation and veganism – should become more central to people’s travel plans.

Travellers will also want these differences to be authentic – they will not be satisfied with spas that are simply re-branded as wellness retreats or hotels that “greenwash” their energy use.

Catering to these changing priorities is an opportunity that the region’s battered hospitality industry can’t afford to miss. According to EMR, the global wellness tourism market is set to achieve a compound annual growth rate of nearly 7 per cent between 2020 and 2025, reaching US$1.1 billion of revenues by 2025.

Hotels that source produce and employ people from a local community can also provide an economic boost that existing tourism models often fail to deliver: the United Nations World Tourism Organisation estimates that, out of each US$100 spent in a developing country by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$5 stays in the destination economy.


When vaccines do allow travel to resume, the hospitality industry in the Asia-Pacific has a choice to make: it can try and return to business as usual or it can embrace the shift towards sustainable tourism and personal wellness.

With travel and tourism accounting for nearly 10 per cent of the region’s economy in 2019, there will be a natural temptation to revert to type. That would be a mistake.

Our industry has an obligation to deliver returns to its shareholders, but it should also have a higher sense of responsibility.

We should rebuild travel and hospitality in a way that is fit for the future, protecting the environment and supporting local ecosystems, businesses and communities. And that happens to be aligned with what a growing number of customers want, too.

  • The writer is CEO and founder of Alta Capital Real Estate, a private equity firm that invests in hospitality real estate across the Asia-Pacific.
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