From pea soup fog to the bleakest darkness

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It’s almost 10a.m. yet a London-like pea soup fog continues to envelope Discovery Bay. For the first time since I moved here in January 2021 I can’t even make out the water to the front and back of Moodie Davitt Asia HQ.

The scene might be atmospheric but the pall of gloom seems to mirror the dark and subdued mood here in Hong Kong. COVID-19 case numbers have been soaring (over 50,000 each day from Wednesday to Friday) and the city reeling from the world’s highest fatality rate for the coronavirus – albeit mostly among under- nor non-vaccinated elderly residents.

Click on the image to read the South China Morning Post article

The South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong is set to open up to 500 COVID-19 testing centres to bolster a universal screening drive. The latter will likely involve a citywide lockdown of between nine and 21 days, starting later this month. Under mounting pressure from Beijing, the authorities here are determined to stop this ‘fifth wave’ in coming weeks.

CDF Mall’s announcement on 3 March of the temporary closure of the shopping complex

Given Omicron’s highly infectious nature, that will be devilishly difficult but it is the chosen path and it is a matter of accepting it. We must not forget the critical point that, whether you agree with the approach or not, the government here is trying to preserve the health and lives of its people.

Subdued is also an appropriate term for sentiment within the travel retail community right now, certainly in Asia. Even the region’s beacon of light throughout the pandemic, CDF Mall in Haitang Bay, Hainan, is temporarily closed due to three imported COVID-19 cases being discovered in Sanya.

TFWA’s announcement this week that it was cancelling May’s Tax Free Asia Pacific Exhibition & Conference in Singapore was an emphatic affirmation of how difficult the region’s business climate remains.

President Erik Juul-Mortensen, Managing Director John Rimmer and the TFWA Board and Management Committee have called this one correctly, knowing that neither exhibitor nor regional buyer attendances would be sufficient to justify the effort and investment made by those who did attend. In making that decision, they have put the sector’s interests ahead of their own and I applaud the move.

There are no government relief packages available for trade associations – nor trade publishers – and TFWA, well-led by the prudent Juul-Mortensen, will have to delay its full return to Asia. Bolstered by strong reserves from the halcyon pre-pandemic days, the association will survive – for the sake of our industry it must – and hopefully this year’s Cannes show in October will be the blockbuster reunion we all crave.

The way we were: A pre-pandemic scene from the TFWA Asia Pacific Conference

Hong Kong’s and travel retail’s difficulties and frustrations, of course, pale into insignificance compared with the atrocities of the war in Ukraine. Some 1.5 million have managed to flee the country in the face of all-out Russian attack and many have died trying to do so. In Russia, now the recipient of widespread economic sanctions, over 13,000 people have been detained since the war began for protesting against the military action.

Despite the internal protests, the global condemnation, the sweeping sanctions, and the attempts at conciliation by French President Emmanuel Macron and others, military action will not stop until Moscow’s demands are met, insists Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Sombre days indeed. As I write, the fog is lifting over Discovery Bay. In Ukraine, whatever the hour, there is only darkness.