Travellers from China and Japan remain firmly interested in Southeast Asia as a destination, but travel operators and sellers will have to adjust and adapt their marketing and strategies to meet the evolving requirements and preferences of these two major visitor source markets in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Safety has emerged a prominent concern for both Chinese and Japanese travellers, affirmed George Cao, CEO & co-founder of Dragon Trail Interactive, and Junichi Kumada, chief research officer at JTB Tourism Research & Consulting, who were both speakers at the recent Virtual Destination Mekong Summit.
Large tour operators are great, but the smaller, emerging tailor-made agencies might be your best partner for the next few months and even years.
On this note, Kumada referenced a recent JTB Tourism Research & Consulting survey of 1,000 Japanese, citing their top factors stopping them from confirming a trip. The topmost reasons cited are the uncertainty of achieving the same level of enjoyment as pre-Covid days, insufficient accurate information to plan travels to destinations, and the inability to move freely as previously, due to restricted measures.
With safety being a recurring concern for travellers in their post-Covid holiday decision-making, Cao stressed the importance of a destination in managing its image - and communicating a message of health and security to would-be travellers overseas.
“As NTOs and DMOs you may not have control over how people perceive your destination as safe or not…but public relations may be more important than marketing at this stage," he said.
"How do you manage the news stories of your destination? How about frequent flare-ups? Do people see your destination as not managing the pandemic very well? [If they do], you’re not going to be on the preference list of Chinese travellers, or from anywhere.”
Xinyi Liang-Pholsena, senior editor at Travel Weekly Asia and moderator of the panel session, also highlighted how Mekong countries have had zero community transmission for quite a while, placing the region in a good position to receive tourists. But is the message going out?
Kumada said that the Mekong region is in good stead to soon resume travel with Japan, as the these countries are a top priority region for Japan's business and residential track for reopening. “Talks between Mekong and Japan’s governments are currently still going on... Vietnam and Thailand are on the top of the list."
What then can travel sellers in the Mekong region do to retain mindshare among Japanese and Chinese travellers while borders remain close?
In China, where the consumption of short video and live streaming content has increased tremendously during Covid-19, Cao recommends pushing out messages of health and safety across these communications channels to both Chinese travellers and the travel trade alike.
Cao also urges destinations to relook the readiness of their travel products, making sure they are updated to match changing trends and preferences happening in the marketplace.
“Do you have good products with experiential elements? And do they take safety and health into consideration? Do your OTAs and tour operators partners have these products ready, and have they updated their inventory?" he asked.
Webinars, online road shows and hybrid trade shows are yet more ways to maintain the relationship between OTAs and the Chinese travel trade during this period, opined Cao.
Kumada echoed the same sentiments from his observations of the Japanese market. He said: “The tendency of Asian minds and way of thinking is very family oriented. Leisure comes first, smaller groups will be the growing markets in the post-Covid era in Japan too.”
Cao, reflecting the findings of recent market research, believes that the tour group segment will make a slower recovery than FITs.
“The appeal of travelling with big groups of strangers have further diminished [post Covid]… Large tour operators are great, but the smaller, emerging tailor-made agencies might be your best partner for the next few months and even years,” he stated.
The days of perceiving the Chinese market as a mass and easy one to court are over as they look for more community-driven and experiential travel, said Brian Linden, owner of the Linden Centre in Dali, Yunnan.
Sharing his observations as a hospitality operator in China in another session during the summit, Linden remarked: "Chinese travellers require more than just luxury and comfort now, and neighbouring countries in the Mekong should focus on their unique culture and activities to target the Chinese market."