Passing the time in ‘Kowloon Kuarantine’ with a travel retail exclusive SQAP and A Room with a View

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.
Martin Moodie

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Where will we go? (Where will we, where will we go now?)
When di quarantine ting done and everybody touch road?
– Koffee, Lockdown

The view from my new Interim Kowloon Kuarantine Bureau (I’ll explain the spelling in a moment) is a familiar but enriching one. I’m on Day 5 of my 14-day hotel quarantine having returned from South Korea late on Sunday night.

Thanks to a last-minute vacancy we’ve managed to secure a room at the outstanding Kerry Hotel in Hung Hom where any frustration at being confined for a fortnight has to be kept wholly in context by the quality of the view and the services.

Each day, the breakfast delivered outside our room is accompanied by a daily menu headed ‘Kuarantine Kanteen’, a nice whimsical touch. And while I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about quarantine hotel catering, they certainly don’t apply to the Kerry.

Each dinner offering is even accompanied by an add-on wine pairing suggestion (tonight a Follas Novas Albariño from Galicia’s Rías Baixas region; on Monday a deliciously bone-dry Riesling from Donnhoff in Nahe, Germany). This is not hardship.

Before I get lost in wine talk, let me backtrack to Sunday and my departure from Incheon International Airport Terminal 1. South Korea’s main gateway is one of my favourite airports – and one of the world’s greatest, its quality of service and facilities regularly seeing it walk away with ‘Best Airport’ accolades.

Its duty free offer, historically split among multiple retailers across two terminals, always vies with Dubai Duty Free at DXB for number one ranking by annual sales. Or did. Then a certain coronavirus came along. As a result, Incheon’s passenger traffic went into freefall, collapsing by -83.1% in 2020. With the pandemic continuing to rear its ugly head – local infections hit a new daily high of 2,223 on Wednesday, up 683 from a day earlier – the authorities are taking no risks with inbound nor outbound traffic.

As I wrote in an earlier Blog, it isn’t easy to get into the Republic and I doubt that situation will change for many months. Getting out – subject to a negative test within 72 hours of departure – was straightforward enough but I was very grateful for my Emerald British Airways card that jumped me into the First Class lane at Cathay Pacific check-in. The paperwork check took around 25 minutes and looking behind us at the queues for both Business Class (which we flew, using up all my BA points while I still can) and Economy, one could reasonably surmise that a lot of passengers got to the flight just on time.

Which is not good, of course, for retail revenues. There were plenty of shops open in the long, expansive Airstar Avenue retail complex, all nicely lit and well-merchandised though the low level of stocks on some shelves is a giveaway about trading conditions.

While vast sections of the landside departures zone were so deserted you half expected some tumbleweed to come blowing through, there was a reassuring normality airside.

Signs of better days to come: Hyundai Duty Free will open expansive Rolex and Chanel boutiques in coming months
Surely one of the most compelling airport boutiques in the world. Korean eyewear brand Gentle Monster makes an exhilirating brand statement at Incheon with one of the best in-store fixtures you will ever see.

Most of the luxury boutiques were open, including Louis Vuitton, the star turn of Incheon International Airport since its opening on 10 September 2011, an inauguration I attended. Every time I visit Incheon I take pictures not only of the store but of passengers having their photos taken (or taking selfies) outside it – such is the Instagrammable allure of the brand and the magical quality of its window displays. Alas, there weren’t any photo takers in sight other than me this time and the usual flow of people into the store was not even a trickle (see video below).

I did my best to boost duty free revenues by shopping at the very smart Shinsegae Duty Free liquor & tobacco store, though I would have contributed more if I had not been given as it turns out incorrect information on the Hong Kong inbound allowance.

The Grand Piano lies covered and silent: Let’s hope the music returns to Incheon soon

The near empty shelves of some traditionally popular lines tell their own story

Lipstick display in the pandemic era: You can look but you cannot touch and certainly not try on

The very friendly and otherwise efficient sales assistant insisted that the allowance was one litre of alcohol. “Are you sure?” I asked, believing that there was no limit on wine. “Yes, for sure, one litre of alcohol – spirits or wine.” [I later checked with someone who should know, Asia Pacific Travel Retail Association/APTRA President Sunil Tuli, who confirmed I could have brought in as much wine as I liked].

With a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc – one has to have vital supplies during quarantine – accounting for the best part of one litre (and therefore my wife’s allowance), the shop assistant’s insistence meant that I had one litre to play with in terms of spirits. Given that I have a reasonably full liquor cabinet back home in Discovery Bay Hong Kong, I decided to get a little creative with my allowance.

One must have the daily essentials before entering quarantine

Several smart companies were offering smaller sizes, so to ensure a variety of nightcaps or pre-dinner tipples for our quarantine, I opted for a 35cl of Deluze VSOP Cognac; a 20cl of the delectable Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey; and similar 20cl versions of Bombay Sapphire gin and The Balvenie Triple Cask 16 Years Old.

Though I say so myself, what a brilliant use of one’s allowance – a multipack brimming with variety and quality. My very own Quarantine Pack [when I told him about it, Andrew Ford of Paccaya Resources here in Hong Kong dubbed it the Survive Quarantine Alcohol Pack – or SQAP]. Travel retail exclusive of course.

Personalised shopping: Create your own SQAP, available at a duty free store near you

My SQAP is serving me very well (The Balvenie 16yo is nectar from whisky-making heaven, the perfect antidote to the locked-in, locked-down blues) and 14 days suddenly doesn’t seem such a daunting prospect. What’s more, we’d asked for a room with a view and duly got, duty free-style, a two for one.

A Room with a View guaranteed at the Kerry Hotel

How so? The aforementioned Sunil Tuli had contacted me in Korea on the day of our departure and said he guaranteed me a room with a view. How could he do that, I wondered? A high-level contact at the Kerry?

The answer came in the form of a parcel inside our room upon arrival in the early hours of Monday morning. Inside it was [perhaps those of you who know Sunil’s sense of humour will suspect what’s coming next] a copy of the 1908 novel by English writer E. M. Forster, A Room with a View. Well, he did say it was guaranteed. Clearly Sunil is a man of his word.

I have yet to read the book though I surely will do so, knowing that it is all about a young woman in the restrained culture of Edwardian-era England. With me in a restrained culture for 14 days in COVID-era Hong Kong, the parallels are irresistible.

Back to my journey. We arrived at Hong Kong International Airport around 11.15am on Sunday night. The arrivals experience was far different than that of a year or so ago when I moved to Hong Kong from London. It is less frantic for sure, in fact it is brilliantly organised to ensure that all paperwork is in place, that an onsite nucleic acid test is done and the results provided on site so that you can leave the airport for your quarantine hotel.

Nonetheless, the sheer number of checkpoints and the barren nature of an air terminal converted to a vast health-checking facility is daunting enough for an inveterate traveller such as me. Downloading QR code quarantine declarations is now pretty much second nature but for the little old lady or man arriving in from overseas alone it must be hell.

Once the COVID-test is done, passengers are marshalled into a large zone in the satellite terminal where everyone is sat at a desk with an allocated number. There they wait until the result – all-clear or, alas for a few, positive.

2.30am, waiting for my test result. I told you we were the website that never sleeps.

It might not feel like it when you’re sat down bleary-eyed and cold inside a giant repurposed air terminal hoping like heck you haven’t caught COVID but the whole system is hugely impressive. We got our results in under two hours and the staff were unfailingly courteous.

The process isn’t finished there of course. Once clear we were bussed to the main arrivals zone for immigration processing, to collect our bags, customs clearance, and finally to line-up in bus queues allocated to the various quarantine hotels.

After the all-clear, it’s time to be bussed to arrivals for immigration, baggage-pick up and customs

At the Kerry we were met by porters wearing PPE and a screened off receptionist in similar garb. Welcome to international travel COVID-style.

At last it’s time for the bus to the hotel
Check-in quarantine hotel-style at the Kerry

Have the Hong Kong authorities got it right? Such stringent measures are of course devastating the tourism sector but on the other hand Hong Kong’s safety restrictions have kept infection rates impressively low, with just one locally transmitted case since 4 June. That’s in a densely populated city of 7.5 million people.

Where would you rather be? In the UK (29,612 cases yesterday)? France (30,920)? The US (143,459)? I know my answer so think I’ll be staying put for a while yet, other than hopefully being able to visit the Mainland (still subject to quarantine on entry) and perhaps – via the much-anticipated, much-delayed air travel bubble – Singapore before year-end.

First, there’s another nine days of hotel Kuarantine, I mean quarantine. I’m determined to make the most of it by keeping the website that never sleeps working around the clock; enjoying some reading in my spare time (current choice the dark, heartfelt and poignant ‘Aren’t you happy for me’ short story collection by American author Richard Bausch), and having the nightly pleasure of raiding my SQAP. All this and, of course, a Room with a View.

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