Learning from history and geography

15 December 2021

Learning from history and geography
How has the world’s accommodation industry
has coped with big events – and what
needs to happen in NZ now?

With the arrival of the traffic light system, the lifting of Auckland’s travel restrictions, and the reopening of the international border in the new year – there’s a lot to consider for New Zealand’s accommodation providers as our ‘new normal’ future arrives on the scene. 

That we cannot confidently plan for the coming year should go without saying. Even as we type this the Omicron variant is causing some countries to selectively reseal borders or reinstate mask mandates. The NZ government is moving ahead – and so too must our businesses.

The entire country woke up on the morning of December 3rd to a dawn tinted either orange or red, depending on their location. Vaccine passes became a must-have item for many. Without one, life became limited. Auckland was released from their border restrictions on December 15, causing a welcome return of visitors for many locations around the country.

The next step is an even more important one: the opening of the international borders will happen in a staggered fashion with New Zealanders being allowed to enter from February through to April, then other non visa-holders also arriving from April onwards. Despite still requiring a week-long quarantine, this will be a game-changer for the hospitality and tourism industries.

The repercussions of these re-openings are unknown but it’s not quite as serious as Winston Churchill would have us think when he said “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This situation is new to everyone and we cannot anticipate every change. Nor can we apply every lesson from the past in the hope it will work for the future.

Rather it’s a matter of studying past events and international examples, making new connections, and uncovering fresh opportunities.

So – where do we go from here? It is worth looking globally. For many countries that have reopened borders and enabled overseas and domestic travel, takers have been slow to come onboard, with many scared of becoming stuck overseas or catching the virus in transit. Numbers are nowhere near their pre-pandemic levels. However, travellers are becoming accustomed to the new way of life, with mask wearing becoming an accepted part of everyday life and vaccine passes readily shown.

Thailand is a key example. Once a flourishing destination for international tourists, especially low budget backpackers looking for adventure, the country suffered hugely from the absence of visitors, with domestic travel revenue dropping from $34.5 billion to $15.4 billion in 2020. To help stimulate this major sector of its economy, the Thai government launched a domestic travel campaign, subsidizing hotel rooms and flights for Thai nationals travelling around their own country. This helped to some degree, with many tourism operators pivoting to the domestic market.

Thailand’s next step in July 2021 was dubbed the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ – ultimately it meant that tourists entering Phuket could stay in the resort island without the need for quarantine, provided they stayed in certified accommodation establishments and did not leave Phuket. This helped to a moderate degree, with around 26,000 tourists visiting over the period of two months, spending an estimated $48.8 million.

Vaccinated international travellers from 63 countries have been allowed back in Thailand since November 1, 2021, with one-day quarantine and a negative test required on arrival. It is still too early to judge the effectiveness of this reopening, although the country has seen visitors from across its main markets of the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, with a lack of Chinese visitors creating an obvious gap in numbers.

Indonesia has stuck with more severe restrictions, to the detriment of its tourism-reliant island town of Bali. Despite reopening to international visitors in October, to date not a single international flight has landed in Bali, which imposes a 9-13 day quarantine on arrivals. This and a requirement to show proof of booked accommodation for the entire stay is thought to be putting off the intrepid travellers who usually travel to the island. In response to the Omicron variant, domestic travel to the island has also ceased and all Christmas and New Year events have been cancelled, leaving Balinese in dire straits.

Both Thailand and Bali are predicted to have a long wait before tourism numbers rebound to pre-pandemic levels, with current estimations looking to at least 2024.

These tourism hot spots may provide some lessons for us here in New Zealand. Reopening without restrictions would be careless but with too many restrictions, tourists may not return. How to find the happy medium between safe travels and adventure?

Deloitte’s recent ‘Future of Hospitality’ report stated, “As the hospitality sector reopens for business, organizations must do all they can to not only provide a clean space for customers but also one that alleviates their health-related worries.”

Here even simple measures can make a big difference in the guest experience. Depending on the different restrictions in place it may be that physical distancing is still required. So – do you leave spaces on larger tables empty in dining areas or do you invest in indoor plants to fill these spaces?

There are ways to keep groups separate without reminding them of mandated limits constantly – and such stress-free dining experiences can create far greater brand loyalty in the future.

As with past examples of fighting previous pandemics, confidence in the health and safety of an establishment is vital.

“Hotels are “sealing” rooms after cleaning,
putting stickers on doors and doorframes
to assure guests that no one has been
in the room since it was cleaned.”

Deloitte Canada, The Future of Hospitality

The ‘new normal’ will become just ‘normal’, given time. Following 911, border restrictions around the world tightened and extended – and this has now become an accepted part of international travel. Following the 2008 financial crisis, mass unemployment saw the rise of the gig economy, with companies such as Airbnb and Uber appearing on the market. Change can provide space for opportunity.

So too is it important to pivot in your guest offering to international visitors. It may be that the one week of self-isolation period is no longer necessary by the time we arrive in April, 2022. However, if this restriction remains, how prepared is your business for attracting those arriving under such conditions?

Do you have the resources and potential to offer discounts and/or unique experiences for a guest arriving into a one week isolation period? Could you offer an in-room tour of New Zealand with meals sourced from different regions? How about a cultural tour, informative podcast or online tour guide feature? And, most importantly, how will you communicate such a guest experience to the market?

One thing is likely – when it comes to international visitors in 2021, there will be a trickle, not a flood. But even a trickle can fill a cup.

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