CHIANG RAI, 17 August 2020: I reckon “I’m forever blowing bubbles,” the 1920s Tin Pan Alley ditty and anthem of the UK Premier League football club West Ham United, sums up the muddle facing the travel industry.
“I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air, they fly so high nearly reach the sky, then like my dreams they fade and die…”
It certainly sums up the fate of all our best-intentioned efforts to salvage tourism so far. Early on travel bubbles, or corridors, appeared to offer a viable solution; one that would keep business ticking over until a cure or vaccine came to the rescue.
Apart from a bubble linking Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Covid-19 ‘second-wave’ outbreaks stymied efforts on every front to create travel bubbles. The countries that fell off the potential short-list include China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Australia and as of last week, New Zealand.
Bubble schemes heralded in the media as lifesavers just faded and died. Now after seven months, we recognise no matter what we say about the need to open borders, who would risk the threat of a second wave or a spike in infections that could cause an already vulnerable health service to implode?
Even if efforts to kick-start tourism are just pretty bubbles in the air, we have to keep trying to find a clearer, safer path to recovery. In Thailand, travel associations are lobbying hard this week to gain government approval for what they call a “safe and sealed” holidays that would fly in groups and transfer them to islands for something pretty close to a confined stay.
They say they want to generate around 500,000 tourists to Thailand during the last quarter of the year an ambitious target made more difficult when you need to find partner nations that have low-Covid-19 infections.
No one knows whether it will work, but travel companies in Thailand face inevitable closure if they stand back and do nothing. Most have cut salaries by 50% and instigated massive redundancies, but they urgently need bridging funds if they are to survive. Big names, small names they are all in the same sad predicament.
Safe and Sealed is essentially a plan to fly in charters most likely from specific cities in China where the infections are contained. It revives the old fashioned charter flight business model of the 1970s.
Travellers winged into Thailand on 14-day package holidays that included full-board accommodation, meals, bus transfers and tours. They were isolated from the local community, mainly disinterested fishing hamlets that had a poor opinion of foreigners anyway. Confined to resorts in destinations that sported deserted beaches fringed by coconut plantations and very little else, groups camped down in Thailand for a tan, cold beer and buffet spreads morning and evening. Patong Bay on Phuket Island was a fine example with a single low-rise resort packed with ‘Neckermann’ charters welcomed by a couple of deckchair vendors on the seven km horseshoe bay.
Up until quite recently, Tourism Authority of Thailand thought the travel bubble idea was best suited for short two to three-day holidays. Now, public health officials and doctors have convinced everyone the long-stay 30-day option is a safer option to allow health surveillance and frequent follow-up checks.
Travel association prefer to start with islands such as Phuket, Phi Phi and Samui as test-beds for the safe and sealed project, but it remains a work in progress. Like other proposals, it may just fade and die.
It sounds feasible to transfer groups of travellers who are tested free of Covid-19 through a channel from flight to a beach resort almost contactless. The snag might be that when they arrive at the resort, there remains a risk during the first 14-days. Some travellers, despite pre-flight testing, could test positive during the first week or so and pass the disease on to resort staff who in turn go home to their families at the end of their shift.
One tour operator with decades of experience in handling European package holidays said a 30-day isolated holiday at a beach resort would have limited appeal, possibly none in China leaving only travellers from Scandinavia. They happily spend a month basking in the sunshine at Khao Lak a destination just 100 km north of Phuket, but the market at best is less than 100,000 from November to February.
Will travel companies find 500,000 travellers willing to spend 30 days confined to a beach resort without contact with local communities? I doubt it. I also suspect that even if you throw open the borders to travel, you will face the same outcome; people will prefer to stay closer to home for the time being.
Pent up demand for domestic travel is a reality that for some destinations is the sole lifesaver. Short holiday hops from neighbouring countries could kick-in if restrictions are lifted but nowhere near enough to reverse the financial losses incurred this year.
Even if the ban on commercial international flights raises bookings from long-haul markets will be sparse possibly for a year or more until a vaccine is commercially available. Instead of the packed daily flights enjoyed in the past, airlines will be lucky to fill three flights a week out of Europe.
Brace for 7 million visitors to Thailand this year if commercial flights don’t resume a high ranking Tourism Authority of Thailand official tells us. If the ban lifts by November, tourist arrivals could rise to 9 million.