Cambodia sticks with its ATF plans

CHIANG RAI, 5 January 2022: Cambodia presses ahead with hosting the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2022 16 to 22 January in the coastal town of Sihanoukville despite a rampant spread of Covid-19 Omicron variant infections worldwide.

It’s a gamble but one that may backfire on the country’s tourism leaders and the organisers of the ASEAN Tourism Forum as the highly contagious variant runs amok, and the standing scientific advice calls for large events to be cancelled.

But in its latest response to questions on whether the show would yet again be postponed, the event organisers confirmed to TTR Weekly that “ATF 2022 was going ahead as planned during 16 – 22 January 2022.”

Cambodia, originally selected to host the 40th edition of the ASEAN Tourism Forum in January 2021, postponed the event by a year, hoping the Covid-19 pandemic would run out of steam after two years of disruptive lockdowns and travel restrictions and the global rollout of a vaccination programme.

MP Singapore that manages the show on behalf of the Ministry of Tourism Cambodia, confirmed safety protocols are in place for ATF2022 that require attendees to be fully vaccinated (proof of completion of a full course of vaccination (two jabs) two weeks before arrival).

They will need to demonstrate proof of COVID-19 status to enter our event ( PCR Test taken within 48 hours of joining the event)

All delegates must also wear a face mask when in the event spaces at all times. Under current entry rules, delegates will not need to quarantine on arrival in Cambodia as long as they have proof of vaccination.

But will the rules be enough to make the ATF safe for visiting delegates? Show organisers worldwide are postponing or cancelling events scheduled for the first quarter of 2022 in response to the more infectious Omicron variant.

WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus identified the inherent risks in a 20 December statement when he told the media:

“All of us are sick of this pandemic. All of us want to spend time with friends and family. All of us want to get back to normal.

“The fastest way to do that is for all of us – leaders and individuals – to make the difficult decisions that must be made to protect ourselves and others.

“In some cases, that will mean cancelling or delaying events… “But an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled.”

Messe Berlin announced in December its decision to cancel its March 2022 ITB Berlin for the second consecutive year due to the emerging risks posed by the Omicron variant. It is very likely that Omicron cases will spike in January at about the same time travel buyers and sellers are preparing to attend the ATF. The show organisers are gambling, but they cannot hide the facts – most international buyers, many of them loyal supporters of ASEAN’s inbound tourism business, are reluctant to attend.

Commercially, it would make sense to move the show a few more months or even a year based on an anticipated low turnout of international travel buyers. Event manager MP Singapore confirmed just 50 international buyers are registered to attend compared with 161 who attended the event in Brunei in 2019. Around 100 international sellers from the 10 ASEAN countries are booked, mainly national tourist offices and organisations morally bound to support the event. The seller count is down from around 300 when Brunei hosted the ATF in 2020. Traditionally Brunei attracts a lower turnout of international buyers when compared with other ASEAN destinations such as Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. Those mainstream tourist destinations in ASEAN would typically attract around 1,000 delegates with 450 to 500 sellers and close to 400 international buyers.

Cambodia will shore up the attendance with local travel suppliers and even travel buyers, but there is no hiding the fact that travel buyers from China and Hong Kong will be absent and as long a European nations are under stricter Covid-19 restrictions to slow the surge in Omincron variant infections there will be little appetite to travel to a trade show in Southeast Asia.

The most significant number of buyers traditionally come from  China at around 11%. They are largely absent this year. Strong buyer attendance comes from the  Philippines 7%, Singapore 6%, India and 6% Malaysia 4%. Europe is also a major source of travel buyers at around 30%. However, the lack of direct flights to Cambodia, the need to quarantine on their return home and the higher risks that Omicron presents for airline travellers will likely discourage trade show attendance throughout the first quarter of 2022.

Even though Cambodia waives quarantine requirements for vaccinated travellers, visitors attending the ATF will still need to show a negative Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test certificate issued by competent health authorities, issued no more than 72 hours upon arrival in Cambodia.

Hosting the ATF while uncertainties remain about the strengths or weaknesses of the Omicron variant is definitely a gamble that could go wrong. The timing is out. A wiser choice would have postponed the show to March, particularly as there is now a clear gap in the calendar left by the absence of ITB Berlin in 2022.

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