The Year of the Caged Tiger

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The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage.

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through.

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within.

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.

– From Tiger Caged by John Cotton

And so into the Year of the Tiger we either roar or whimper, according to who you listen to and perhaps to where you are in the world.

Here in Hong Kong, there’s a subdued mood, almost one of resignation, among many people I talk to. Although the post-arrivals hotel quarantine has been reduced in most cases to 14 days rather than 21, that’s still a heck of a confinment in cost, inconvenience and mental health terms and explains why both outbound and inbound travel remain moribund. This week the government is expected to announce a further tightening of local restrictions as the Omicron variant starts to cut its inevitable swathe through a hitherto largely unaffected community.

When I arrived here in July 2020, things were very different. Then we simply had to self-isolate at home for a fortnight, wearing a wrist tag connected to a quarantine app. The various COVID-19 waves that we have been through since – Omicron’s emergence means we are now officially experiencing the fifth wave – has long done away with the concept of home quarantine.

The South China Morning Post paints a grim picture of the evolving COVID-19 situation. Click on the image to read the full article.

That’s meant a total rethink of travel plans for so many who live here. I am no exception. Even getting to nearby places such as Hainan and Macau is currently nigh impossible. Hopefully that might change once the fifth wave is under control – that is if you can get Omicron under control. Although I know people prepared to (or, due to their job, having no choice but to) come in and out of Hong Kong regularly and put up with the drag of quarantine, I am not one of them.

As a result, plotting out my year’s work and personal travel schedule has become an exercise in planning one mega-trip, hopefully starting in Hainan, then Shanghai, onto Singapore for the TFWA show in May, up to continental Europe, on to the UK to see my family, then back – whenever and however, perhaps via Australia and New Zealand – to whatever quarantine restrictions await me in Hong Kong.

The alternative – not travelling and simply waiting it out – isn’t palatable either. It is time to catch up with people both inside and outside travel retail. It will be two years this month, for example, since I last saw Dubai Duty Free boss Colm and his wife Breeda. The occasion was the 2020 Dubai Tennis Championship, organised in impeccable style by the Dubai Duty Free Team (and about to take place again).

I remember the occasion as if it was yesterday, instead of nearly 730 yesterdays. By now the worrying coronavirus of just a few weeks’ standing had a name (the World Health Organization dubbed it COVID-19 on 11 February 2020) and already Dubai Duty Free was feeling the impact in terms of travel numbers. Novak Djokovic was on hand, some 23 months before his non-vaccinated status would see him deported from Australia before the Australian Open, gracious with photo shoots and posing with fans (including me) during the event.

Two legends in their own fields. But not even Novak Djokovic nor Colm McLoughlin could have had any idea of how the next two years would pan out.

I recall one Italian travel retail executive there, who had flown in from Milan, berating me for an unemotive, wholly factual article I had written about the coronavirus spreading in Italy. She claimed articles like this would ruin the Italian tourism industry. In fact, as she spoke, the virus, not me, was doing exactly that and within a fortnight the country would be in lockdown.

Similarly, it’s almost two years since we closed Moodie Davitt HQ in Brentford, just outside London, a then seemingly interim move long since rendered permanent. I have seen none of my colleagues (except briefly our Publisher Irene Revilla during a quick flit back home in mid-2021) since on anything but Microsoft Teams calls. And our original Worldwide HQ (pictured below) is now just a memory.

The original Moodie Report Worldwide HQ (aka the garden shed), now consigned to being part of our company’s 20-year history
It is nearly two years since we bade farewell (we thought temporarily) to our offices just outside West London…
… leaving the redoubtable Wilson (you will have to know the movie Castaway to get the reference) in control. Wilson has now been stranded just about as long as Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks).

My granddaughter Carys, safely nestled down in Pontardawe, Wales, is precisely 19 months old today. I have seen her on three occasions since she made her entry into our troubled world. Even allowing for my move to Hong Kong in July 2020, I would have expected to see her much more often in the intervening months. Like so many around the world, family gatherings have been confined to Whatsapp calls.

As the muted but cautiously optimistic Lunar New Year celebrations draw to a close, it’s back to business as normal – or what is guised as normal these days – with all my Chinese travel retail friends returning to work. Ahead of them, I suspect, is a pretty good year in terms of intra-China business – and I’m talking Hainan, the Mainland, Macau and (hopefully) Hong Kong.

The rest of the world, while largely adopting a ‘live with COVID’ approach, will likely see a steady improvement in all travel and tourism-related sectors though it is going to have to wait awhile for the return of the Chinese, perhaps not before 2023, the Year of the Water Rabbit. That means I, like so many industry colleagues in Hong Kong, will have to make do with my current limited confines for a long while yet.

Fortunately I love this place and no amount of short-term frustration will change that. Restrictions or not, Hong Kong oozes infinite variety and vibrancy. The hills around me in Discovery Bay, for example (below), offer fantastic hiking that reward the effort with some of the most magnificent vistas one could imagine.

So while the tiger in question of the Chinese zodiac may for now be of the caged variety, at least the cage allows me plenty of room to prowl.