Will ‘travel bubbles’ revive tourism and travel sectors, or is it too soon to dust off our passports?
COVID-19 has delivered a crushing blow to the tourism and travel sector, but some countries are successfully managing the virus, and are considering opening up their borders to neighbouring nations. These ‘travel bubbles’ have been pitted to bolster the global economy and enable us to travel safely and with more freedom.
In this episode, David is joined by new podcast host Tom Robinson, and Curtin researchers Dr Mingming Cheng and Professor Kirsten Holmes, to discuss the likelihood of travel bubbles, changes to tourism operations, and how our own travel experiences may evolve in the wake of COVID-19.
Curtin University supports academic freedom of speech. The views expressed in The Future Of podcast may not reflect those of the University.
Music: OKAY by 13ounce Creative Commons — Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported — CC BY-SA 3.0 Music promoted by Audio Library
You can read the full transcript for the episode here.
This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how their work is helping shape it for the better.
I'm David Blaney.
And I'm Tom Robinson.
Tom is the new me, today is my last day hosting this podcast. I'm moving on to a new position in the exciting world of accounting, and so I pass the baton on to Tom, a student journalist at Curtin. Best of luck Tom! I'm sure you'll do a good job and I look forward to listening to more episodes of The Future Of with you at the helm.
Thank you, David. I'm really excited to be joining the team and presenting the podcast. I've got some big shoes to fill, but I'm looking forward to getting stuck into it.
Well, let's do just that. COVID-19 has delivered a crushing blow to the tourism and travel sector with 45 per cent of global destinations shutting their borders to stem the spread of the virus, but some countries are successfully managing COVID and are opening up their borders to neighbouring nations in a bid to revive the tourism and travel industry. These 'travel bubbles' can bolster the global economy and enable us to travel safely and with more freedom.
To discuss this topic, with us today are Dr. Mingming Cheng and Professor Kirsten Holmes. Mingming is a researcher in Curtin's School of Marketing, and Kirsten is a Dean of Research in Curtin's Faculty of Business and law. Thank you very much both for joining us today.
Yeah, thank you for having…
Thank you, David.
Mingming, what are travel bubbles exactly and how long can we expect them to be around?
So, for the travel bubble at this stage is to basically allow the quarantine-free travel of people between neighbouring countries. So at this stage we're discussing about New Zealand and Australia, but in the medium and long terms, they are discussing about the possibilities to have more countries. Now there are possibilities around discussion about including more Asian countries including Singapore and South Korea, because apparently these countries have the Coronavirus under control. Now in terms of how long we're going to expect that, of course it will depend on this current situations and how Coronavirus is under control. But also there are other factors we need to take into consideration, because everyone is afraid of the second wave, and we don't want that to happen. So basically we also expect some procedures in place in the airport or for the airplanes. So basically what happens now is people are thinking, "Well, we want to test people before they get on a plane whether positive or negative, and also we want to use them to use the tracing apps, so that we know if something happened we can trace those people."
So, in the immediate terms, I think when all the borders are open in between different states and territory in Australia, we can expect the travel bubble to happen between New Zealand and Australia coming in a few months' time, and then if that turn out to be successful and then when we expect more countries to be involved like Singapore and South Korea.
Kirsten, could this new future for travel in terms of travel bubbles and restrictive borders, could that actually be a blessing in disguise for local tourism operators and related industries like hospitality and entertainment?
Well, certainly in Australia tourism operators and organisations are crying out to get started again. I mean we've heard about the terrible economic impact on tourism and hospitality and events, but it's going to depend what markets are included in those bubbles and what operators have developed products for those specific markets. So Mingming mentioned New Zealand for example, and New Zealand is one of the key source markets for Australia, but they tend to go to the east coast rather than to the west coast. Whereas if we looked at Singapore which is talked about a bit longer term as a potential travel bubble partner, that's more for Western Australia. So it does depend on where those markets are, it also depends on having direct flights. So Republic of Korea, we don't have any direct flights to WA from Korea. So that's not going to be particularly useful to us, they'll have to transit, and they would have to transit through another part of Australia which is fine.
So this is something to think about with travel bubbles whether it's actually possible to travel direct, because if you have to transit that increases the risk of maybe coming into contact with someone. So it does potentially offer us new opportunities in terms of catering for those markets. Thinking again about what different tourists tend to do, so tourists from Singapore tend to stay more in our urban areas - it's actually the European tourists who go out to the regional areas who tend to be a bit more adventurous, and there's no talk at the moment of having any travel bubbles with European countries. So that's going to be a real hit for businesses in regional areas. There might also... there's also some forms of tourism which are easier to design as 'safe'. So hotels or business events ,whereas others such as nightclubs and music festivals, it's going to be very difficult to manage some kind of spacing, and some kind of safe environment.
So it's going to be really good news for some operators, maybe not so good for others, and they're probably going to have to pivot their operations to think about... I mean the Republic of Korea is not really an important market for WA at all, so that would involve quite a bit of change to create products and experiences that are going to be attracted to that market sector.
Kirsten, travel restrictions are lifting but COVID remains a distinct threat. How might our tourism experience be different with these travel bubbles?
Well, firstly we're going to have limited routes and limited destinations. So we're not going to have the choice in terms of travel that we would have previously had. I mean the most visited destination for Western Australians outside of Western Australia is Bali, which is not a particular surprise, and that's certainly not on the cards at the moment as a travel bubble. So it's going to be different destinations, Mingming's already mentioned a few things, tourists should be prepared for travel to take longer because there's going to be testing, there's going to be restrictions. We should be expecting to take maybe random COVID tests at different stages, wearing masks, obviously plenty of hand washing and sanitiser. There's also going to be some uncertainty in bookings, so you could book a holiday and then nearer the time there's a second wave or there's an outbreak, and therefore it's there's no longer any travel to that destination. So I can see bubbles opening and closing until we have the COVID more under control with for example, better treatment or a vaccine, or some way of controlling it better than we have at the moment.
It's likely to be more expensive, because there'll be fewer people travelling, everyone will have to be spaced out. So if you're running a tour, you're going to be taking fewer people on that tour on a bus or on a boat. So you're going to need to charge more to cover your costs. You'd expect you're going to be tracked in your destination, Mingming's already talked about that. So you'd have to be happy with being tracked by the government of the destination you're going to. One of the things that I was looking at is Disneyland, so Disneyland, Hong Kong is due to open fairly shortly, in a couple of weeks, and they're talking about distancing in queues, distancing on rides, so you'd expect all of that to take longer. So, that gives you an idea of what the overall travel experience might be like.
Yeah, just being prepared for waits which is going to be less attractive to some market segments like families with young children, and maybe older people with disabilities, that make it more unpleasant to have to wait around longer, people with less time.
Mingming, we've just sort of heard about maybe the expense of travel increasing, I'd like to flesh that idea out a little bit more. Will travel bubbles and the ongoing sort of pandemic make travel more expensive? Will things like travel insurance cost more money?
Yeah, of course as Kirsten mentioned earlier because a lot of procedures will be in place to protect the travellers. So, at this stage we can see that the air tickets are already very expensive because there's only few flights, and also because then you spend more money to clean the flight and also prepare the food because, due to health concerns, and also we can look at the travel insurance is more expensive because what happened now is that they have kind of had a sudden cancellation because of second wave, and then the travel insurance companies will take that into consideration.
So there're more cases will happen than before and then they'll probably... they will more likely to increase the travel insurance as well, and also the other thing is that for a lot of the hotels, accommodation sectors so they will also need to spend more money to clean their hotels, and also as Kirsten said before, because of social distance things there's going to be less rooms than before. So, that's what they need to take into considerations, but also we're looking at like hostels and also other sectors that may not be operating, because the hostels are usually quite cheap, people stay together, but in the current environment it may not be possible for them to do so. So, things will be more expensive and also when you remember that a lot of people lost their jobs, they're not in a... Also, travel isn't something cheap, so this also will be one factor as well.
Yeah, so that's the risk that we've been talking about in tourism academic community, of travel becoming more elitist, because fewer people can afford to travel, it's going to take longer. So it's really becoming... it might be going back to how it was 100 years ago when travel was really the preserve of the kind of wealthy who didn't have to work, so that's a concern. The budget traveler is going to find it very hard to travel.
Yeah, the same like Kirsten also mentioned before is about the tours, before they allowed 20 people but now they're only 10 people, but the cost will be similar. And also, we will see a strong demand for people to go to natural sites, which a lot of time require a tour...because people sitting in a city will be too crowded and many risk involved, so more people are likely to travel to a natural site, but because the cost will actually go up if we go there, because in the city area they have good public transport already in place, but for a lot of natural site they may not have. So, this can also increase the cost as well.
Yeah, that's good point.
Mingming, the Chinese government has warned it's citizens not to travel to Australia when borders fully re-open. This is on the grounds of an increasing racism since the COVID outbreak, given that Chinese tourists and students account for a very large percentage of Australia's economic revenue, how concerned should we be about this warning?
Well, definitely this is concerning, so let's first put that into perspective. So if we're looking at the Chinese tourists or visitors coming to Australia, so in 2018 they had 1.4 million Chinese tourists coming to Australia and they are the largest spenders. Although, New Zealand... so Chinese market [inaudible 00:12:04] So if you look at the numbers on average Chinese tourists spend $9,000, but New Zealanders only roughly $2,000 so it's a quite a bigger difference. Also, the other thing we're looking at is that we have a huge number of Chinese students coming to Australia. So among all the visitors 20 per cent of those visitors are actually Chinese students to study in Australia, and they actually contribute roughly 50 per cent of the total money spent of Chinese visitors in Australia. So this is a huge... to Australia.
So, roughly Chinese visitors including students contribute 0.6 per cent of Australia's GDP per year. Now for this particular warning because as we know that with the border closures, they're not coming anyway. So, it will not affect us in the immediate term, but let me just give an example of Canada. A similar warning has also been issued by Chinese government to not allow.. not say not allow, but not encourage Chinese tourists to go to Canada. So in 2019 we actually... so the travel warnings was issued in the early 2019 in January and now we're looking at figures of the numbers of visitors... China visitors to Canada they actually see a 9.6 per cent drop. So it's actually... we can see the effect already but at this stage what we can look at... but Canada is different case, because Canada only have roughly less than 15 per cent of China visitors compared to Australia, for Australia it's much larger.
So what are we looking at here is that in the short term we don't need to worry too much about it, because they can't come anyway, but in the longer term I know we can say how are we going to move that forward? Because at this stage I think tourism has been into politics. So, what happened now with a lot of Chinese student, China tourists, when the government issued warnings, so their parents of a Chinese student will worry about it, "Will it be safe to travel?" I think what will happen now is that in general speaking the Chinese visitors have a good positive view of Australians, but they're aware of this as well. There's maybe the political relationships and I think once the politics settle a bit, things will come back.
Kirsten, a lot of tourism operations are dependent on volunteers, whether this be city of Perth tours, wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, museums. How are this kind of groups and organisations currently tracking and what does their future look like?
Well, Tom there's been a lot of concern generally about volunteering in Australia. We know from some research done by Volunteering Australia that the numbers of volunteering have fallen during the pandemic, and one of the challenges that the volunteers doing these kinds of activities and especially in the tourism-related activities tend to be older, often retired individuals, and those are the ones considered to be in at-risk groups. So they're the ones who are staying away, so that's been a bit of a challenge. So organisations need to make sure they're providing a safe environment for their volunteers, as well as their visitors and their staff. Some activities I don't see being affected, you've mentioned national parks and we have volunteers running campgrounds in national parks. So I can see that that's something that's relatively easy to do from a social distancing point of view, but if you're giving a guided tour in an enclosed space like a museum, that's a bit more of a challenge because you're going to have restrictions on who can be there, you're going to need to keep distancing and yet still be close enough for them to hear what the guide is saying.
So, that's a bit more of a challenge, a bit more of restriction. Generally volunteering involving organisations have been trying to attract a wider demographic of volunteers over this previous pandemic period, particularly younger volunteers, but that's not always possible because a lot of the tourism activities need to take place during the day when people would be working, and they're also kind of regular activities. So, it's a bit harder to move those online whereas some of the other... some volunteering has been moved online which has helped, but I think it offers a challenge to these kind of organisations like, museums have been running a lot of online tours, and a lot of those are virtual tours that are just done digitally, but there's no reason why you couldn't have a commentary from a tour guide who's there to answer questions as well, which makes it more of an augmented reality rather than just a kind of more passive experience.
The same with visitor centres. So a lot of our visitor centres in Australia are manned by volunteers, especially in rural and remote areas, but I'm sure we could develop the technology for them to be manned from home, from the volunteer's home, and that will make it a lot easier. They might have to... I can see then that they end up being there all the time and on call constantly, which might be a little bit annoying for the volunteer. But I think there's... you know, what we've seen generally in volunteering over the past few months is pushed towards being a little bit more innovative in the way that volunteers are involved, and I'd like to see the same kind of approach across tourism operations as well as more generally within Australia.
We've seen on social media some tourist destinations like Greece and Italy offering to pay for half of your trip, or pay for a portion of your trip once the border has been open. What impact do you think that we'll have on tourism?
I think this is a good marketing strategy, because when people pay of portion of the money, they're more likely to visit destination in the future because they already paid for it, they're already making a commitment to do it. I think this is a great strategy at this stage ,and also we see a lot of virtual tours that Kirsten mentioned before. So we're hoping that they want people to experience first or make a commitment. So research already showed that people who actually... who experience virtual tours are more likely to visit that destination in the future, and I think these is the same kind of strategies and also for... a lot of tours operators and also airlines. So when people... they encourage people to book the flight at a cheaper price, but they offer the flexibility saying well you can come back any time, but you're still going to use our service anyway so we get that part of money in our company. So, as I said before to kind of make them commit and they will come.
Yeah I think it will make it very attractive particularly cause they'll be looking at the Northern European markets like Germany, Denmark, Scandinavia ...not Sweden but Norway and Finland maybe. So, yes I think it will make it very attractive.
I think this is what they can do at this stage, they cannot really do much but actually... because we can see that for the [inaudible 00:19:26] there is what we call delayed demands. People still have a desire to travel because... think of ourselves, travel become... for lots of us part of our life, and there's the delayed demand, if we can have with the demand already in place that will be a good strategy.
Given that obviously the WA border is closed right now and we're talking about travel bubbles being in the future, and how can we get the tourism industry up and running again. What are your thoughts on people in WA enjoying some of the local tourism possibilities that the state has to offer?
I think there are enormous possibilities, I mean the... we're very lucky in WA that it's summer somewhere in WA all the time. Most of our tourism is people in WA going on holiday in WA, and that's the biggest spend as well. So, as a sector I think it will... and people can't travel outside... I've mentioned that normally there'd be a large number of people going to Bali and they're not going to Bali. So they'll probably want to holiday somewhere else, maybe in Broome or somewhere else that's a bit tropical. So I think that's actually going to enable the tourism sector to bounce back pretty quickly. There's going to be some operators who have particularly designed products for, for example the Chinese market or the Singapore market, and they're going to have to maybe rethink what they're offering a little bit. But I think Tourism WA is putting its marketing efforts into promoting experiences that we have around the state, and we have amazing experiences.
One of the challenges is that they're very small operators mostly, so they're designed for very small numbers of tourists. So there might be some restrictions there in terms of... and particularly because if you're running a boat trip you can have fewer people on the boat, so there would be some challenges there, but certainly I actually think our sector will bounce back pretty quickly.
What impact has this been having on the sustainability of tourism overall? Has it been a bit of a blessing for places like Venice for example, where there's been perhaps a bit of over tourism?
Well, yes. I mean the concept of over tourism was talked about a lot in 2019. It's not really a new concept but the term was kind of coined particularly in response to protest by residents in certain destinations that felt that they were being overwhelmed by tourism such as... particularly Barcelona and Venice was one that picked up. We know from seeing images online and video with the Venice canals that we're starting to see wildlife coming back into these places, when they've been at risk over a number of years from cruise ships or mass tourism causing, particularly Venice to sink, but other destinations as well have felt a little bit overwhelmed. So, that's been a really positive outcome from an environmental sustainable point of view rather than economic point of view. What I think there could be some concern... so Mingming earlier talked about the natural attractions are going to be particularly attractive to tourists because they're outdoor, they're seen as healthier, it's easier to space out, it's easier to be away from other people, it's easy to go camping and for your little bubble of family to be here and another family over there.
One of those concerns is about whether having bubbles and having limited destinations, actually means that you have larger numbers of people going to some of these places than they were designed to support. So it's been really positive from a sustainability point of view, but there's a potential risk when we open up those bubbles, that we could see certain natural attractions suffering a little bit. So I think it's really important to think about how those are going to be managed and how those impacts are going to be managed going forward.
I think we'll leave it there, thank you very much for coming in today Mingming and Kirsten and thanks for sharing your knowledge on this topic.
Yeah, thank you for having me.
Thank you for having us.
That brings us to the end of today's episode and the end of my tenure as a presenter. Thank you very much for listening and thank you to everyone who's been involved in the podcast. There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to put these briefs together and to pester academics into coming in and talking about things, so thank you very much.
Thank you, David. My name is Tom, I'm the new host of the podcast. I'm sure all the listeners and crew will miss hearing David's voice, but I am the one taking over, thanks for passing the reigns over, David. You've been listening to The Future Of, a podcast powered by Curtin University. If you have any questions about anything that we've raised today, you can get in touch by following the links in the show notes. Bye for now.