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China Daily Global / 2021-06 / 01 / Page001


By WANG MINGJIE in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-01 00:00

Vaccination certificates expected to play key role

With COVID-19 vaccination programs gaining pace worldwide, governments are considering options to reopen borders and resume international travel-an industry that lost income of almost $4.5 trillion globally last year due to the pandemic.

In March, China announced the release of an international travel health certificate, which could potentially allow people who have been vaccinated to sidestep quarantine rules.

The European Union has proposed a Digital Green Certificate to allow free movement between member states and other countries, hoping for a launch sometime in June.

The United States and the United Kingdom, which are leading the vaccination rollout among major economies, are planning to implement similar permits.

Travel experts said that as China is one of the most important source markets for international outbound tourism, the success of its digital health certificate would have a significant impact on reviving the global tourism industry.

George Cao, chief executive of Dragon Trail, a China-focused digital marketing and travel company, said, "China's vaccine certification lays the foundation for the resumption of international travel (supported) by Chinese tourists.

"As it is the first vaccine passport in the world, in that sense, China is leading the way in making it possible for international travel to resume."

Helena Beard, founder of the consultancy China Travel Outbound, which is based in the UK, said, "As the biggest source travel market in the world, I think that a successful implementation of the certificates in China will lead the way for the recovery of global tourism.

"While most countries are missing Chinese visitors, there are some whose economies rely very heavily on their return. Many Asian destinations in particular will be open to accepting the certificates. I believe that as soon as outbound travel from China is permitted, Chinese tourists will be welcomed with open arms."

Chinese outbound tourism is the biggest global tourist segment, with more than 169 million overseas trips made in 2019, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

As the pandemic has been effectively contained in China, and many other countries are still struggling to combat it, domestic travel has become an obvious preference for Chinese.

Latest figures from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism show that about 230 million domestic trips were made during the five-day Labor Day holiday, a year-on-year rise of nearly 120 percent.

Wolfgang Arlt, director of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, based in Hamburg, Germany, said, "A 'health passport' can have a positive impact in convincing authorities abroad and in China to allow vaccinated people to travel freely again.

"It can also increase the trust of Chinese travelers, who can feel safe being vaccinated and will be considered safe by host communities if they can prove they have been vaccinated."

Dimitrios Buhalis, deputy director of the International Centre for Tourism and Hospitality Research at Bournemouth University in the UK, said, "The vaccine passports will bring confidence to consumers and will support their demand to travel again.

"There is no doubt that Chinese tourism is a major market for many destinations around the world. The sooner we can bring the tools and the story forward to enable travel, the better it will be for destinations and also for travelers."

Major hurdles

However, travel experts said significant hurdles need to be overcome before Chinese tourists are seen at long-haul destinations in large numbers again.

Arlt said mandatory quarantine for inbound travelers from overseas had deterred Chinese citizens from going abroad. However, quarantine had been effective in preventing transmission of the virus in China by overseas arrivals.

For Chinese, destination risk levels, pandemic control policies and friendliness toward travelers from the country are the top concerns when selecting a destination.

Olivier Ponti, vice-president insights at ForwardKeys, which specializes in travel data analysis and is based in Valencia, Spain, said, "While the launch of the vaccine passport is a very positive development in terms of getting closer to the recovery of Chinese outbound travel …the pandemic is still surging in some parts of the world and the speed of the vaccination rollout varies widely from one country to another.

"Safety perception strongly influences Chinese people's willingness to travel abroad, so the ability for destinations and the travel sector as a whole to provide a safe experience will play a crucial role in the rebound of Chinese international travel."

According to the latest travel sentiment survey by Dragon Trail Research, friendliness is the priority for 62 percent of Chinese consumers, regardless of whether they are eager to travel or not.

Some 43 percent of Chinese consumers would be more confident about traveling overseas after being fully vaccinated, the findings showed. About 56 percent said lifting quarantine would have a bigger influence on their foreign travel plans, while the same proportion said zero confirmed cases would be the key factor. Some 45 percent said the resumption of international flights would influence them the most.

The survey showed consumers would try to travel safely and avoid becoming a burden for healthcare workers.

Cao, from Dragon Trail, said, "An influx of Chinese tourists would depend on how soon each destination reaches herd immunity, therefore minimizing the risk of transmitting the virus when traveling outbound and returning to China."

Mutual recognition

There is a growing consensus in the international tourism sector that establishing mutual recognition mechanisms for vaccine passports could be a major step in paving the way for safe and smooth cross-border travel.

The International Air Transport Association, or IATA, is a strong advocate of the use of digital vaccine and testing certificates to support the resumption of international travel.

The IATA Travel Pass is being developed to manage testing and vaccination documentation for travel. However, the association emphasizes that global standards are needed to enable these efforts to be fully realized.

An IATA representative said, "It is absolutely vital that agreement is reached on a digital standard for testing and vaccination documentation. Without globally recognized standards to prove that someone has been vaccinated or tested, the potential for frustrated travelers, fraudulent 'players' and overwhelmed border authorities is very real.

"That's why we are urging the World Health Organization to expedite its work on standards for this documentation. Without it, we will have to rely on paper documents and the system will come to a halt."

The industry's future

In its latest update, the World Tourism Organization predicts that international tourist arrivals this year will be 55 percent to 67 percent below the levels seen in 2019, depending on how quickly countries roll out vaccines to lift travel restrictions.

Buhalis, from Bournemouth University, said, "I think that in 2021 we will see safe corridors being developed between countries that have low epidemiological loads."

He added that the bulk of tourism activity will be primarily focused on domestic and regional travel.

Based on the current situation, travel data analyst ForwardKeys expects international travel to return fully to its pre-pandemic level in 2026.

Ponti, from ForwardKeys, said, "With China's economy quickly recovering, I believe there is a lot of pent-up demand for international travel. Chinese outbound travel demand is still strong, and when the conditions are right, this demand will translate into bookings and China will renew its leading role in the global travel economy."

He believes destinations that provide a safe experience and re-establish good air links with the Chinese mainland will recover first.

Beard, from China Travel Outbound, said that while in the short- to medium-term international travel would struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels in terms of numbers, she expects the Chinese market to see pre-COVID-19 figures in terms of value much more quickly than others.

"The Chinese economy has weathered the storm extremely well and people in China have the desire to travel and the money to do so," she said. "Fewer trips will be made, but they will be longer and more luxurious."

Arlt, from the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, said that after the pandemic, "the question for international tourism is not just to get back to 2019 (levels), but to move forward to a better, more sustainable tourism, to what I call 'Meaningful Tourism'."

Destinations such as Scotland are aware of the need to develop better offers for the Chinese market and create more satisfaction for the next wave of visitors from the country.

Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland chief executive, said, "We are working in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group to create cultural training resources for use by staff in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

"This will help them understand the importance of the Chinese tourism market as well as Chinese culture and the needs of Chinese in order to ensure that these visitors are given the warmest Scottish welcome when they return."

Clear decision

Niall Gibbons, chief executive of Tourism Ireland, said, "Any initiative from the Chinese government that gives travelers more confidence to take vacations in Europe is a welcome sign and should help encourage Chinese tourists to travel again when the time is right."

While vaccine passports have been an "ongoing conversation in many countries that are considering reopening their tourism destinations … a clear decision has been made by the Chinese authorities, and this initiative should have significance in promoting healthy and safe travel," Gibbons said, referring to the launch by China on March 9 of the international travel health certificate.

"It is very clear from consumer research across countries that demand for (post-pandemic) travel is high. In relation to China, the sentiment coming from our global inbound operators is very much the same, with travel agents and operators reporting high interest and demand," Gibbons said.

A recent survey of more than 8,300 people age 16 and older in the United Kingdom by market research company Ipsos MORI found that 78 percent were in favor of vaccine passports to travel abroad safely.

Last year, global tourism experienced its worst year on record, with international arrivals falling by 74 percent, according to the World Tourism Organization. The collapse in international travel equates to an estimated loss of $1.3 trillion in export revenues, more than 11 times the loss recorded during the global economic crisis in 2008-09, according to the organization.

"Any new (agreed) or required initiative that helps us get tourism flowing again will be welcome," Gibbons said.

In recent years, Ireland has reaped the benefits as more Chinese travelers visited long-haul destinations.

Tourism Ireland figures show there were more than 103,000 Chinese visits to the country in 2019, up from 22,000 in 2011.

"These figures reflect the success of our increased activity in China since 2007-running sales missions, along with workshops with consumer awareness programs using WeChat and other digital platforms," Gibbons said.

The number of Chinese visiting Ireland rose significantly in 2017 and 2018, due in part to Tourism Ireland's marketing campaigns.

Direct air links have been another important factor in the dramatic rise in the number of Chinese visitors to Ireland.

Gibbons said: "Until the pandemic took hold, we had direct air access from Beijing and Hong Kong to Dublin. Unfortunately, for obvious reasons, these routes have been suspended. We are hopeful that we can restart some of these routes and marketing initiatives in the future."


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