Travel bubble brings slow recovery for Singapore, Hong Kong inbound

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Inbound players in Singapore and Hong Kong are reporting a slow but exciting return in travel demand between the two Asian cities on the back of a soon-to-come bilateral air travel bubble, reflecting a different reality from ForwardKeys’ recent report showing sharp spikes in flight searches and bookings between Singapore and Hong Kong.

Singapore inbound player SingExpress Travel has received enquiries after the travel bubble announcement and is now getting regular group bookings every week from several Hong Kong agents. Senior manager – inbound asia, Bernard Yu, is anticipating a further increase during the Christmas holiday period.

Singapore inbound players are reporting varying levels of interest from Hong Kong travellers

While his Hong Kong agents were worried about extra costs from pricier flight tickets and compulsory Covid-19 tests, most were “excited” about business prospects after a drought of “no outbound business to anywhere”, Yu told TTG Asia.

SingExpress Travel has lined up a collection of tour programmes that are “ready to go once we get the latest updates from both authorities”, said Yu. These itineraries include a theme park programme for families and an affordable Private Premium Food Trail Programme.

Yu said “any number of tourists coming in is a good start”, especially as inbound business had ground to a halt since mid-February.

SingExpress Travel’s state of business appears to be an exception, as things are staying quiet for other ground operators, who speculate that the delay in tour bookings may be due to travellers from Hong Kong bidding their time until more details about the travel bubble are confirmed.

“We believe that travellers from both countries are still waiting for further announcement from both governments as to when exactly the travel bubble will start and what the requirements will be, such as how many tests are required and the costs of the tests,” surmised Stanley Foo, founder and managing director, Oriental Travel and Tours in Singapore.

TY Suen, founder & CEO of Singapore’s Woopa Travels, shared hopes that more enquiries will flow in “after the details are finalised”.

To prepare for the eventual return of visitors from Hong Kong, Woopa Travels is working with the Singapore Tourism Board and its regional offices to monitor demand in Hong Kong and develop enticing offers.

Meanwhile, Oriental Travel and Tours is considering the adoption of Cantonese-speaking guides to attract Hong Kong travellers and cater to this new segment which previously did not represent a substantial portion of demand.

In 4Q2019 – before the onset of Covid-19 – Singapore received 489,000 travellers from Hong Kong, placing it as the top 13th source market for the island nation.

Foo said: “(Although) the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble will not substantially impact the tourism industry in Singapore, we see it as the start to the signing of more travel bubble agreements with other countries in the world.”

Hong Kong’s inbound players are also still seeing quiet days, but hopes are growing.

Gray Line Tours, executive director, Ronald Wu, said the business outlook is still “sketchy” without clear information on the daily visitor quota and the number of flights per day.

That said, Wu regards the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong as a “good start for our tourism recovery”.

“If this is implemented smoothly and well, it will be a model for more destinations to come,” he remarked, adding that other favourable conditions must also exist, such as the availability of affordable Covid-19 tests that come with quick results.

Wing Wong, executive director of W Travel, which has entertained some enquiries from Singapore since the announcement, remarked that it is “vital to get moving”, even if the market is small.

The agency is looking to spur demand through tours that feature heritage and environmental protection, and which take tourists away from the crowds.

Wong expects Singapore travellers to surface in December but with concerns mounting over pricey airfares, he believes demand will be confined to luxury and business travellers.

Discova’s country manager for China & Hong Kong, Sandy Ho, shares reserved expectations, saying that Singapore travellers to Hong Kong tend to favour low-cost carriers, so pricey airfares at this stage could stall recovery.

Offering a more optimistic view is The Hari Hong Kong, a hotel due to open in mid-December. The hotel spokesperson told TTG Asia that the travel bubble will bring leisure travel opportunities for the festive season starting around December and running through to Valentine’s Day in February. Business travel will also benefit from the relaxed quarantine requirements and unrestricted activity likely to come with the travel bubble.

The hotel is banking on “revenge travel” to bring about a surge in inbound business to Hong Kong, as well as other bilateral travel bubbles that will be formed following the first Singapore and Hong Kong arrangement.

“It is important for Hong Kong to test the waters and be truly ready to navigate in the new normal. For us and our peers, our goal is to make sure international travel to Hong Kong is once again safe and pleasant,” added the spokesperson. – Additional reporting by Prudence Lui

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