Great expectations – why Asia-Pacific should lead the travel recovery

Jo Sully, vice president and regional general manager, Asia Pacific, American Express Global Business Travel, notes the return of face-to-face events in varying capacities across Asia-Pacific, and the importance of risk management by governments to unlock international travel once again.

technology will play a key role in the recovery and preparation for the new world of business travel

Nations around the world have been holding their collective breath in anticipation of a vaccine-led global economic recovery, but one region has started to exhale. What is driving Asia-Pacific’s return to travel and why is it ahead of the curve?

As of March 1, the number of business travel bookings in Asia-Pacific has been more robust than anything seen across the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. This is, however, almost entirely domestic travel.

Companies are planning business travel itineraries and their travellers are ready to go as soon as restrictions are lifted

There is the view that first into the pandemic should be first out. Across Asia-Pacific, countries are reporting lower numbers of infections than other parts of the world. This is despite having two of the largest populations in China and India.

China’s response from the start was to test as many people as possible as fast as it could. Rapid tests are available at airports for those travelling within China today. This aggressive approach to test has enabled people to move around the country largely unencumbered.

Today, travellers in China are taking almost as many business trips as they were pre-Covid, and similar trends are emerging in other countries, most notably in India where more than seven in 10 of our clients’ employees are back on the road. In countries like Australia, travel volumes are heading in the right direction as border restrictions ease.

For much of Asia-Pacific, international travel is further into the future. Despite the stop-start nature of the situation, there is some proactive policymaking such as Singapore’s Air Travel Pass which allows for travellers to enter from Brunei Darussalam, mainland China, New Zealand and Taiwan, and reciprocal travel lanes between Singapore and Japan, and on/off travel between parts of Australia and New Zealand.

On the other hand, it highlights how disjointed governments have been in their approach to international travel. It’s plain to see that economies will never recover if countries restrict movement and a forced inertia.

Late last year, the Lancet journal concluded: “… Lockdowns and other extreme restrictions cannot be sustained for the long-term in the hope that there will be an effective vaccine or treatment …. Governments worldwide now face the common challenge of easing lockdowns and restrictions while balancing various health, social, and economic concerns.”

Governments hold the key to returning to safe travel. But rather than waiting for vaccines to save the day, we need intelligent risk management, not short-term avoidance actions like lockdowns.

Our clients want to travel and meet face-to-face, and many are planning itineraries, so they are ready to go as soon as restrictions are lifted.

And it is no wonder: For more than 12 months, business people have negotiated, networked and prospected from their own kitchens and living rooms. This comes at a cost. In January, the IMF said global growth contraction for 2020 was estimated at -3.5 per cent. We’ve also seen record levels of unemployment and mental health issues around the world. We have coped with Covid, but in a much-diminished state.

The lack of in-person interaction has heightened the desire to get together again, to innovate, create, educate and inspire, not to forget the serendipitous moments that can only happen when people are together. This unspoken understanding prior to Covid-19 has now become obvious.

Across Asia-Pacific, face-to-face events have returned, in varying capacities across China, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan and Japan. In other countries such as India and Thailand, we are seeing smaller face-to-face events, with mainly a virtual presence.

Key industries in Asia-Pacific that are already hosting face-to-face meetings and events include pharmaceutical, professional services, automotive and banking. And we anticipate significant growth in terms of meeting and event volumes in 2H2021, but they will be smaller in size due to duty of care and government restrictions.

Many organisations are reassessing their meetings and events need to drive simplification and incorporate the changing regulatory requirements such as safe distancing measures. There is also a focus on gaining insight into the balance of the year programmes’ needs and volumes, to ensure the entire calendar and process is sustainable.

The Asia-Pacific region has entered an important and exciting period. Travel management may be more complex, but it has also become far more strategic.

Jo Sully is the vice president & regional general manager, Asia Pacific at American Express Global Business Travel, a role she has held since March 2020. Sully is responsible for developing the strategy in Australia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, our Joint Ventures in China and Japan.


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