From a Dante-esque hell to the heaven of home

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After 93 days living out of a suitcase and a myriad of hotel rooms, it’s a relief to be back home in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong. And unexpectedly early at that after the Hong Kong government announced a change to the rules this week, moving from a seven-day hotel quarantine requirement to a ‘3+4’ regime (three in a hotel, four under ‘home medical surveillance’).

The new regime comes into effect tomorrow, 12 August but was retrospectively applied to those like me who were already in quarantine. Remission for good behaviour perhaps. To those outside Hong Kong, the need to still do three days of hotel quarantine may seem onerous but it’s a heck of a lot better than the situation a while back when the confinement was for 14 days and – believe it or not – at one point 21.

The staff at the Airport Regal do a good job and my ten-pace room was ok but I still feel like I have escaped from room 1072 rather than simply having checked-out. Let’s just say that when the call came from reception that we could leave, I scarpered pretty quickly.

Looks like those in a neighbouring room were not so lucky with their test results

The new quarantine regime is an important step in the right direction, which makes foreign travel a lot easier and less expensive for people like me who have to travel in their jobs. But for the tourism sector, so traditionally important to Hong Kong, to bounce back, hotel quarantine will have to be scrapped. And that may be a way off yet.

Having spent a quarter of the year on the road, I feel like I have a pretty good picture of our industry’s state of health. Travelling through so many airports (14) in that time has given me plenty of confidence in travel retail’s future, albeit laced with concern about what’s happening in the wider world of airports and airlines.

There’s a big contrast between Asia and the Middle East on the one hand and Europe on the other. Hamad International Airport, my first stop, is simply buzzing; Dubai International roaring back; and King Khalid International in Riyadh leaving 2019 sales in the Arabian dust. In Vietnam and Thailand, though both are at early stages of their respective tourism revivals, the sector mood is positive and the commercial trajectory upwards.

Hamad International Airport has played a starring role in world aviation right from the beginning of the pandemic. Today sales are booming, a trend sure to be accelerated when the long-awaited expansion opens later this year.

Perversely, some European airports and airlines, bereft of passengers for so long, have been turning customers away, unable for a variety of reasons to cope with demand. Staff shortages, in particular, have been the blight of the sector and I still shudder at the thought of my experience at Frankfurt Airport where due to a delay with Lufthansa Heathrow Airport, I missed my connecting Thai Airways flight.

‘Abandon hope all ye enter here’ wrote Dante in 1472 in his epic ‘Divine Comedy’, the tale of a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Certainly the first two applied to the travel experience of many that day due to issues with missed Lufthansa connections. Heaven? I reckon a lot of Frankfurt Airport’s passengers must have turned atheist.

As I have long said, the recovery of the travel retail, tourism and aviation sectors is not going to be linear. There are going to be plenty of hiccups, heck, even choking fits, along the way. Even the hot spots will turn cool now and again as we are seeing in Hainan with all stores in Sanya and (off an on) Haikou closed in recent days.

The airport staff challenges are going to take time to work out and it is to be hoped that people who suffer the distress I witnessed in Frankfurt are not put off international travel on a long-term basis. But they will be worked out and the world is simply not going to turn in on itself again whatever variant of this horrid virus next appears.

For travel retail (including airport food & beverage) that spells good news. I tuned into Dufry CEO Xavier Rossinyol’s post first-half results call with analysts this week. It was an impressive, decisive, almost ‘don’t mess with me’ performance and while he didn’t disguise the very real challenges facing the sector, his message was firmly upbeat.

The two tables below tell you a lot. Add in an improving Asia Pacific in the second half (and, hopefully, a Greater China bounce back in 2023) and you can justifiably feel, to quote Rossinyol, “cautiously optimistic” at last about the future of travel retail. Cautious because our world remains so uncertain. Optimistic because a world long near starved of travel is not going to accept such meagre rations again.

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