SINGAPORE, 7 February 2020: When travel is hit by a crisis, it doesn’t take too long before experts point out that the Chinese word for crisis also means opportunity.
Earlier this week, tourism leaders in Thailand bandied this loose and possibly inaccurate translation as if they know something about the Novel Coronavirus that has eluded the rest of us.
John F Kennedy popularised the inaccurate translation, and it was quickly picked up by marketing gurus who saw a vast opportunity to sell optimism that is now the thriving industry of crisis and reputation management. Nothing wrong in that but a flawed translation sometimes has us scratching our heads looking for positives that don’t exist.
We find ourselves once more at the cusp of a global health crisis so to dispel ignorance and fear even an inadequate translation gives us hope.
I suppose the saying “there is always a silver lining to the darkest clouds” gives us a hint of where the Chinese word ‘crisis’ was heading. Unfortunately, those who echo the sentiment that a crisis always hides an opportunity rarely identify a single example.
Possibly China has an opportunity to ban all wildlife trade and clean up its dirty markets that experts say are a fertile breeding ground for SARS and other deadly viruses. That would be a positive takeaway for a crisis.
There’s talk that the Chinese government will no longer allow food markets to coexist next to wildlife trade markets and if China takes the lead and bans wildlife trading outright as a result of the latest public health crisis, then we could say it grasped an opportunity that bodes well for humanity and the planet.
As for other opportunities, I am not sure what good news optimistic travel executives have up their sleeves. For the thousands struggling with quarantine restrictions or under hospital care and the families of those who died, the cliche is meaningless.
What we do know is the Novel Coronavirus is not going away any time soon and considering the SARS crisis lasted from November 2002 to July 2003, tourism could face a slowdown on an unprecedented scale as the year progresses.
While the death rate at 2% is lower than SARS (9.6%), the spread is faster with substantially more cases than SARS in a much shorter period.
There are disturbing facts that suggest this virus will exert a high penalty on Asia’s economies.
Macau closed all of its casinos for at least two weeks, effective last Tuesday and more than 46 airlines dropped services to Mainland China.
Two cruise ships are quarantined one in Hong Kong and the other in Japan. What was billed as sail through paradise turned into a stop in purgatory for the 5,300 passengers stranded on the vessels.
Countries across Asia are closing their borders to Chinese tourists and travellers with a history of making recent visits to Mainland China are banned or quarantined.
Events lined up this month and in March are cancelling or moving to new dates.
TTG Media’s popular IT&CM in Shanghai scheduled for March moves to August, while the NATAS Travel Show in Singapore just two weeks away has postponed the event to the first week of May. Others will follow.
Meetings are possibly the most vulnerable in the short-term. However, if the virus continues to escalate at the current rate, leisure trip bookings and airline travel will also decline.
Are there are opportunities to shine in the face of a disaster? Possibly if the travel industry concentrates on duty-of-care and introducing and fully supporting measures that make travel safer from a public health perspective. Lessons learned during the SARS crisis are now serving countries well. They are better prepared to tackle a global health crisis and ultimately like the SARS crisis, the Novel Coronavirus will be defeated as long as we put health first well ahead of the economy and business considerations.