Daybreak in Discovery Bay. That’s got a nice sound to it, hasn’t it? And it’s an equally nice sight, a breath-taking one in fact. A glorious full moon is just coming to the end of its shift having bathed the waters below in light throughout a cloudless night.
DB as the locals call it, is a carless zone, so I can hear the birds chirping their furious morning chorus in the trees by the ferry pier half a mile away as one of them might fly it. Almost perfect tranquility in a world that currently offers so little.
No more Interim Bureaux for a while (at least until I can get flying again); instead I’m now settled into Moodie Davitt Asia HQ, working from home overlooking the sea.
Already a familiar routine is kicking in. Wake in the wee, small, dark hours and wonder (or more often fear) what the overnight news will bring. Brew the coffee; check CNN, BBC, Global Times of China, and the South China Morning Post online. Dive into the deep, constantly refilled, pool of emails. Fight the fiercest and nearest fires; juggle the administration, the correspondence, and the bit I love the most, the editorial.
I’ve often written about the two steps forward, one step backwards nature of the travel sector recovery but in truth it sometimes it feels like half a pace forward and about ten back. The relentless news of fresh border closures weighs heavily on all of us (overnight brought more woeful tidings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announcing an agreement with airlines to suspend travel to the Caribbean and Mexico, and France stopping all but essential travel from outside of the EU and tightening testing requirements from inside it).
I always try to balance our coverage of such news with positive developments wherever and whenever I can find them. It’s critical that battle weariness does not lead to despair in any business community and travel retail, which has felt the cold blast of COVID-19 for so long, is no different. Our responsibility as a communicator is one I take seriously and sometimes its weight can seem exhausting.
Hainan can generally be relied on for news of the positive variety as sales continue to surge thanks to the triumph of a pro-business, pro-consumer offshore duty free shopping policy introduced in 2011 and triumphantly enhanced last July. Macau and Jeju (another offshore duty free model), too, bring shelter from the storm. And this week’s opening of the new Bahrain International Airport Passenger Terminal was rightly celebrated not only for the grandeur of the facility (and the fine Bahrain Duty Free retail offer and other commercial services) but the signal it sent out to the world that a bright future lingers somewhere out there beyond the haze.
I take hope and inspiration too from much of the correspondence I receive and the depth and warmth of human engagement I also see via my LinkedIn page.
“Life is a rollercoaster. One may rise, fall and rise again. I am coming through moral and emotional exhaustion right now so I know what you are talking about. Tomorrow is going to be better, I do believe it. My positive vibes fly to you,” wrote one of my close contacts, Sergei Bozhok, to a distressed fellow LinkedIn member this week.
Sergei was for 13 years and two months Business Development Manager for DERA-Vladivostok Co, the biggest duty free retailer in Russia’s Far East of Russia. He was good at his job, popular, respected. And then last August he got kicked in the teeth by the COVID-19 crisis, as passenger traffic plummeted.
Today his LinkedIn picture carries the green garland of ‘Open to Work’ that so many fine people from our industry now wear. And yet through the pain of his posts, his humanity blazes like a furnace. Read this, if you will, from another of his recent posts.
“I won’t lie – it is not an easy task to be always optimistic, to think positively and believe in yourself. It’s all right to allow yourself different feelings and emotions. To be alive, not a ‘positively programmed’ robot.
“Today is the day I woke up with some kind of panic in my mind. I feel like I’m stuck in an unpleasant period of my life. And the situation doesn’t change for the better no matter what I do. So many questions are running through my brain like crazy horses: What will the future bring to me and my family? Am I going to make it and return to that lifestyle I deserve and used to? Why can’t I get the job I will go to with a smile on my face and harmony in my soul? What else should I do to succeed?
“Fear. It attacks without warning and hits hard. Every time I feel it, I remind myself of Mike Tyson’s words: ‘When I’m having a hard time I keep telling myself that it won’t be any better if I just give up.’ So I stand my ground and make another step forward, I fight my fears and keep not just hoping for the better future but doing all I can to make it real.”
Bravo Sergei for having the courage to articulate what so many of us feel. I asked him a little while back to write a guest article for our main website. He called it ‘Searching for a duty free revival in Russia’s Far East’ (you can view it here) and it was full of intelligence and insight (‘Tough times act as a stress test for the entire industry. Survival becomes a matter of adaptability, flexibility of the business model, the ability to find and implement non-standard ways out of complex situations,’ he writes).
Alas, there are too many others onboard the same listing ship as Sergei and we must somehow retain our conviction that the various vaccines, devised in such impressive short time, can be rolled out with sufficient speed to help rescue the vast swathes of the travel and tourism sectors that are now imperiled.
You won’t take too much comfort, however, from a less inspirational but infinitely sobering column from the UK Daily Telegraph headlined ‘Covid is a 1914 moment for the post-Cold War globalised order.’ In it, writer Allister Heath argues that ‘vaccine nationalism’ and border closures have critical implications for freedom. I don’t agree with everything he says (‘freedom’ is arguably the most abused word in the English language), but it’s a dark, brooding and compelling read that underlines the monumental repercussions of this pandemic.
“It is now Covid’s turn to wreck the assumptions that underpinned another period of globalisation: a wonderful, freewheeling, ultra-mobile 30-year affair that started with the downfall of communism in 1989 has come to a screeching end,” Heath writes. “A paradigm has shifted: a shrinking, integrating world is expanding and fragmenting again.
“Many of the freedoms we had taken for granted have been revealed as temporary privileges, revocable at any time, by states that are flexing muscles we thought had atrophied. A liberal era is over; a new phase of managed globalisation is upon us. It will affect all of us hugely, in two major ways.
“The travel bans and quarantine hotels are this new philosophy’s first, most shocking manifestation. For the first time since the mid-Forties, governments are preventing citizens from leaving their countries, via hard borders. In Britain, it is now against the rules to go on holiday, and guarded hotel quarantines are being imposed on citizens returning from high-risk countries. This policy will surely be extended drastically as more mutant virus strains pop up across the world.”
He continues: “The old certainties – that it would always be possible to visit family abroad, or grab some sun, or find a job in Dubai if things went really wrong – have been dashed. Psychologically, this closing of exit strategies will be oppressive for many. In just nine months, border shutdowns have gone from inconceivable impositions in the modern, easyJet world to one of the state’s key public health tools.”
As Heath notes later, whether one agrees with this approach or not it is – here comes that horrid phrase – ‘the new normal’. Travel bans and quarantine hotels won’t be a one-off, he writes. “There will be more outbreaks of infectious diseases in the near future, and also false alarms, and they will all be accompanied by crippling restrictions.”
Entire industries are now “uninvestable”, Heath contends with a certainty that whether you agree or not should be mandatory reading for anyone invested, as it were, in the travel retail sector.
“Every firm will have to plan for the likelihood of future lockdowns. Travel bans will become like recessions: a known risk to be managed. Many business models will no longer make sense. There will be huge demand to travel and eat out when this period ends, but hotels, airports and airlines have become speculative investments, the value of which could fall to zero at any time.”
Travel bans as a “known risk to be managed”. Think about those words for a moment in the context of airport retail contracts. Consider them also against the backdrop of Incheon International Airport Corporation’s valiant but in vain efforts through multiple tenders to secure tenants for the vacant T1 concessions. These are contracts that until very recently would have been considered the most prized real estate on the duty free planet. Many (not all) airport contracts have a force majeure (unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract) clause. Maybe retailers will now demand a ‘known risk’ one.
Whatever your view of the world order (or disorder) that will emerge from this – and I favour Sergei’s view (‘I fight my fears and keep not just hoping for the better future but doing all I can to make it real’) over Mr Heath’s – it is clear that things have changed forever. COVID-19 is not war (though its body toll is tragic enough) so 2021 is not 1914 revisited but it’s bad enough. Few of us can be or even want to be ‘positively programmed robots’, as Sergei puts it, but we can all keep trying to make a better future. In fact we have no choice.