Travel industry glad to be back at work as VTLs take off; staying optimistic despite Omicron
SINGAPORE: Two months ago when Mr Patrick Ong knew he was going to be leading a tour to Germany, he was over the moon.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, his job as a tour manager with Chan Brothers Travel would take him to different parts of Europe multiple times a year. But after leisure travel came to a halt, he has been working from home, taking on customer service duties at the travel agency’s enquiry hotline.
The trip to Germany would be his first guided tour in nearly two years.
“When they told me the news, I was so excited that, you know, that night I couldn’t sleep at all. I was very happy as I have not been travelling for the past one year and eight months,” the 45-year-old said with a big smile.
The 11-day tour, which departed on Nov 1 with 17 other travellers from Singapore, was one of the tour groups organised by Chan Brothers under Singapore’s vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs).
The VTLs started off with Germany and Brunei on Sep 8 before being extended to other countries in recent months, allowing those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel without quarantine. This has paved the way for battered travel providers to slowly return to their core business.
For Mr Ong, his to-do list before the trip this time round was longer than usual.
Apart from reading up about the destinations in his itinerary, he had to keep up with daily COVID-19 developments in Germany, as well as the changing rules and requirements at each location.
He also had to be familiar with the safety protocols put in place by the travel agency, such as making sure that everyone in the tour group takes their temperature twice daily and having local emergency contacts on hand.
He also brought along a second suitcase with extra thermometers, wet wipes, face masks, hand sanitiser and nearly 50 antigen rapid test (ART) kits as a precaution.
His family was concerned about him travelling at a time when COVID-19 was still raging in parts of the world but for Mr Ong, he could not wait to return to a profession he has enjoyed for about 24 years.
“I was thinking finally, I can go somewhere with a tour group,” he told CNA. “For so long, we’ve not travelled. Life must go back to normal.”
“That was how it felt when I was there in Germany ... Most of the time when we're outdoors, you see locals and even other tourists not wearing their masks. Everything felt like it was back to normal.”
Mr Ong was not the only one feeling that way.
Ms Jessie Lim, head of Europe product development at Chan Brothers, described VTLs as her “booster shot” for work.
“For the past one-and-a-half years, we couldn't do anything much, to be honest. So with the travel lanes, we are definitely very excited,” she said.
Together with her team, Ms Lim has been drawing up travel itineraries to various European countries included under the VTL arrangement, such as Italy, Spain, Finland and Switzerland.
Her job is to ensure that travellers have a well-balanced dose of fun and safety.
“When I started planning, I put myself in the customers’ shoes,” she said. “If I’m the one travelling, what am I expecting? What kind of experience do I want after two years of not travelling?”
CHANGING DEMANDS OF TRAVEL
Border closures have meant far fewer tourists in Singapore since the start of the pandemic early last year. Industries relying on tourists and international meetings have been badly hit, and most pivoted to other businesses or accelerated their digitalisation plans.
Travel agents have borne the brunt of the impact, with 157 – or 8 per cent of all licensed travel agents – ceasing operations, according to figures released last month at a Parliament sitting.
To cope with the downturn, CTC Travel put staff on no-pay leave and relocated its office out of Chinatown Point to cut costs.
The 31-year-old travel agency has restarted overseas tours following the launch of the VTLs. While customers have not returned in large numbers, CEO Chen Bin said he is hopeful.
“It has been many twists and turns for our industry since the pandemic started. We still haven’t seen the end of this but the VTLs have given us a glimmer of hope,” he told CNA in Mandarin.
“It’s still a glimmer at the moment, not too bright but it is a good start. It has given us confidence, it has also given our customers confidence that this industry will not disappear.”
Last month, Mr Chen co-led the agency’s first tour group to South Korea under the VTL scheme. The trip, his first in more than 20 months, gave him a first-hand experience of travelling during a pandemic and allowed him to observe how the demands of travel have changed.
This, he said, will come in handy for the agency’s planning of future travel packages.
For instance, tour sizes will be smaller, with 20 or fewer travellers in each group. Travellers also prefer having a more relaxed itinerary, with more outdoor and experiential activities.
Pre-trip preparations, such as taking required COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and making sure relevant documents are on hand, can be quite a nerve-wracking process, said Mr Chen. Coupled with ever-changing safety protocols, going overseas can become quite daunting for holiday-makers who just want to have a good time.
This is where travel agencies, which have fallen out of favour among younger travellers in recent years, can step in, he added.
“Before the pandemic, the trend of free and easy holidays affected our business. But given the uncertainties of the pandemic, travel agencies do have our own advantages such as being able to handle everything for our customers including last-minute changes or unexpected scenarios,” he said. “These are additional assurances that we can offer."
This is echoed by Mr Ong and Ms Lim from Chan Brothers Travel.
“As a tour manager, my job is to make sure everything goes smoothly. For example every day in Germany, I make sure I check up all the places of interest and the necessary health requirements required,” said Mr Ong.
“With the current situation, there are people who want to travel and want to have the assurance that when overseas, every nitty-gritty thing from start to end will be taken care by someone. I think this is going to be more important in the new norm.”
STAYING POSITIVE, DESPITE OMICRON
But since the VTLs' launch, COVID-19 infections have surged around the world and a new variant has emerged.
The Omicron variant has been detected in at least two dozen countries, including in Singapore. Scientists are still gathering data to establish how contagious the highly mutated variant is, and the severity of the illness it causes.
Still, many governments have responded by tightening travel rules. Singapore has announced that it is freezing all new VTLs and pausing any easing in social restrictions. Stricter testing requirements for travellers have also been introduced.
Asked how Omicron could affect the fragile recovery in the local travel industry, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a press briefing on Nov 30 that travellers may turn “more cautious”, with some deciding not to travel for the time being.
“We are yet to see the full impact of this Omicron variant and as we said, there’s still a lot (about) this variant that we are not familiar with. We are still discovering more information and time will tell whether or not this Omicron variant is likely to have a further impact on the travel industry.
“In the meantime, I think it is important for us to take additional precautions to limit or to mitigate the risk of imported cases,” said Mr Gan, who is also the co-chair of the country’s COVID-19 task force.
“It’s also important for the long-term interests of the travel industry because we want to ensure that if we were to open up, travelling can be done safely.”
Mr Jeremiah Wong, a senior marketing communications manager at Chan Brothers, said the company has not observed “a significant or an instant negative reaction” from its customers so far.
“While we have received calls of concern from customers, most if not all have chosen to proceed with their long-awaited holiday plans,” he added.
Mr Chen from CTC Travel said some customers have decided to postpone their trips following recent events, such as the confusion over whether Singapore travellers would be quarantined when they arrive in South Korea.
Last week, South Korea announced it would impose a 10-day quarantine on all travellers due to concerns over the new Omicron variant. This threw the status of the Singapore-South Korea VTL, which kicked off on Nov 15, into doubt.
It was a day later when the South Korean Embassy in Singapore said travellers using the VTL from Singapore to South Korea would not have to undergo quarantine.
Such events have rattled travellers, said Mr Chen. Apart from South Korea, other customers due to travel to Germany and Spain this month have also taken on a wait-and-see approach.
Still, travel agencies told CNA they are staying positive.
Mr Chen said: “Unfortunately, it seems that COVID-19 will be with us for quite some time and there may even be more severe variants or other viruses in future. What we can do is to adapt accordingly.”
Chan Brothers said it believes in being “flexible, adaptable and fluid in this new climate of travel”.
“Ultimately, while the Omicron variant may potentially be a bump along the journey of recovery for our industry, we are ever positive that consumer confidence in travel will eventually regain momentum as travelling is considered a national hobby and that the wanderlust is truly alive for Singaporeans,” said Mr Wong.
For Mr Ong, he is set to lead his second tour group to Switzerland this Friday.
“We have to be extra careful but as we are all vaccinated, I’m not too concerned for now,” he said. “I’m more worried about borders starting to close again because of the new variant. Hopefully it will not.”