MICE industry in Singapore and Malaysia pulls together to face challenges.
The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) a public health emergency of international concern.
Since China announced on 31 December 2019 the incidence of multiple pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, and its first fatality on 11 January, the death toll has risen to 170 — all but one in Hupei province — with more than 7,700 people infected in China. The hitherto unknown coronavirus has spread to more than 18 countries, and more than 90 cases confirmed to date.
Wuhan has been locked down since 23 January, and all group tours — domestic and international — from China were halted, disrupting the week-long lunar new year holidays and peak travel season. With incubation taking one to two weeks, health authorities around the world have adopted various protective measures, from temperature screening to outright bans on travellers arriving from Wuhan and Hupei.
The tourism industry in Northeast and Southeast Asia is hard-hit by the travel restrictions, infections and quarantines, as well as ‘fake news’ and rumours spread via social media. Attractions have suspended operations, including Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong’s Ocean Park. Hong Kong has curtailed tourist visas for Chinese nationals, stopped border crossings and halved the number of inbound flights from the mainland.
Singapore was commended for its handling of the 2003 SARS epidemic and industry bodies like the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS) are engaging with STB and government agencies to provide advice and proactive measures to the MICE industry.
SACEOS president, Aloysius Arlando, says: “The industry is working together to implement relevant measures should the situation worsen. More importantly, we want to safeguard the health and safety of workers in the industry and attendees at events. With our collective experience and wisdom, and as a whole industry, we will continue to be agile and work with partners to face the evolving situation with greater confidence.”
With reduced travel from and to China, international airlines are cutting services. British Airways, United Airlines and American Airlines are suspending some flights. Others like Cathay Pacific, Asiana, Jetstar Asia, Finnair and Lufthansa are reducing frequencies. More airlines are likely to follow suit.
Some MNCs in Singapore are forbidding staff from travelling to China. With group tours from China curtailed and travellers becoming increasingly cautious, the impact on the MICE industry could be ominous.
The biennial Singapore Airshow scheduled from 11 to 16 February may be a bellwether for other business events in the next few months. China has a major presence at the show, in terms of exhibitors, buyers and trade visitors.
In neighbouring Malaysia, the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture met with tourism and MICE industry players this week to establish a Tourism Recovery Committee, which is monitoring the coronavirus situation (seven cases have been confirmed in Malaysia) and assessing alternative strategies to address the negative impacts on tourism.
The ministry is working to establish thermal screenings at all air, land and sea entry points. There are also special immigration lanes and counters specifically for travellers from China.
Convention centres in Sabah and Kuala Lumpur, have not yet received any event cancellations, nor has the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau, however clients have expressed concern.
Meanwhile, Mint Leong, managing director at Sunflower Holidays DMC, says all of her business for the next month has dried up.
“All inbound and outbound incentive groups have either cancelled or postponed, amounting to a loss of RM3 million [US$73,000],” she says.
Leong has organised a five-day familiarisation trip for AIME buyers to Melaka and Selangor, but its fearful some buyers may cancel due to coronavirus fears.
“What the industry needs right now is a firm hand to determine a course of action during this challenging situation,” she says. “The Tourism Recovery Committee, led by government and supported by industry, will be a reference point for actions to be taken by hotels, airlines, tour operators, and everyone in the industry to overcome this challenge.”
The Malaysian Association of Hotels has confirmed multiple cancellations of FIT and group bookings across the country, but is confident in the government’s crisis preparedness and is working with industry partners on contingency plans to boost tourism.
Additional reporting by Anis Ramli
Main image: Getty Images