Travel disruptions

Where travel weathers the storm

Tourists taking a selfie near the restricted area around Mount Agung in Karangasem, Bali, last Wednesday. Right: Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong in August. But nasty weather is not keeping visitors away. Right, below: Residents evacuating their homes afte
Tourists taking a selfie near the restricted area around Mount Agung in Karangasem, Bali, last Wednesday. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Tourists taking a selfie near the restricted area around Mount Agung in Karangasem, Bali, last Wednesday. Right: Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong in August. But nasty weather is not keeping visitors away. Right, below: Residents evacuating their homes afte
Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong in August. But nasty weather is not keeping visitors away.PHOTOS: REUTERS
Tourists taking a selfie near the restricted area around Mount Agung in Karangasem, Bali, last Wednesday. Right: Typhoon Hato hit Hong Kong in August. But nasty weather is not keeping visitors away. Right, below: Residents evacuating their homes afte
Residents evacuating their homes after flooding caused by Cyclone Ockhi in the coastal village of Chellanam in the southern state of Kerala, India, on Friday. Despite extreme weather events, the Asia-Pacific is the world's second most visited region after Europe and has seen the fastest growth in recent years. China and Thailand are the region's top two destinations, followed by Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan. PHOTOS: REUTERS

Asia-Pacific tourism remains resilient despite storms and other disasters

Travellers in the Asia-Pacific region are a resilient lot. So, too, regional tourism and business travel, which bounce back no matter what unpleasant disruptions nature throws their way.

Many Asia-Pacific destinations are set to hit record visitor numbers this year, despite 2017 whipping up some nasty weather - back-to-back typhoons that lashed East Asia, snow storms in northern Japan, epic floods in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Malaysia, winter smog in India and Bali's cranky Mount Agung.

And the forecast is not sunny. Extreme weather events are increasing, driven by man-made climate change. Twin this with rapid growth in business and leisure travel, and that means more people face disruptions in the future.

"Weather-related disruptions are becoming more and more frequent. Where we see a big impact happening is on the travellers who are based in Asia," said Mr Akshay Kapoor, senior director of multinational sales (Asia-Pacific) for Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

He told The Sunday Times that climate change was a growing risk.

There was a 46 per cent increase in weather disasters globally from 2010 to 2016, with 797 "extreme" events recorded last year, according to research published in The Lancet medical journal in October.

The trend of more extreme weather is predicted to continue.

For Asia, that means more travellers, more airports and more cities face disruption risks. For travel insurance companies, it means greater risks and potentially more rewards from higher premiums.

Insurer AIG Singapore earlier this year reported an 85 per cent increase in travel claims made for high-impact incidents, such as extreme-weather events, compared with three years ago. It said high-impact incidents were the top emerging risks for local travellers and that claims data also revealed high-impact incidents were becoming more common, "resulting in a 10 per cent rise in demand for premium travel products offering a greater amount of cover".

Few countries are battered by more storms than the Philippines. Yet even here, travellers show remarkable resilience.

Last year, the country was hit by 14 storms and typhoons. Still, it received six million tourists, surpassing the tourism department's target of 5.9 million. This year, the country is expecting 6.5 million visitors.

"Tourists don't ask about the weather. They know already," Ms Frances Joy Sarenas, a travel agent with Richworld Travel and Tours Philippines, told The Sunday Times. She said the season, as well as annual festivals, dictates their schedules, not travel alerts about severe weather.

Penang has suffered repeated flooding in recent months. Last month, 15 hours of torrential rain over one weekend paralysed parts of the island.

"Tourism was definitely affected when it (the flood) happened," said Mr Vergis Matthews, Penang chapter chairman for the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents.

"But the Penang government did a marvellous job of clearing the place. By Monday, everything was back to normal (on the island)."

Just because a destination is disaster-prone does not mean tour agencies or tourists will avoid it.

"When we plan tours, we will take natural disasters into consideration and do our best to avoid periods that these might occur," said Mr Geng Shiyi, a travel consultant with the Beijing Youth Travel Service. "We do not stop organising tours to a country just because of natural disasters there because, after all, these do not occur all the time."

Said Ms Ni Qiao, 46, a frequent traveller from China: "I'll just avoid those (unsafe) periods."

Weather is one of the top concerns of travellers, according to a survey released last month by Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

Nearly half of Chinese travellers said they are very concerned or somewhat concerned when it comes to personal safety, with weather conditions among their top concerns. For Indians, weather was their top concern.

These concerns notwithstanding, the region's travel sector is booming.

The Asia-Pacific received a quarter of the world's total visitors and earned 30 per cent of global tourism receipts. The region also accounted for 317 million outbound visitors and generated almost 40 per cent of the world's tourism expenditures, according to the latest Asia Tourism Trends joint report from the World Tourism Organisation and the Global Tourism Economy Research Centre.

The Asia-Pacific is the world's second most visited region after Europe and has seen the fastest growth in recent years. Last year, international arrivals in the region grew 9 per cent, the highest across world regions, to reach 308 million.

Most of that traffic, about 80 per cent, is from within the region.

China and Thailand are the region's top two destinations, followed by Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan.

That remarkable growth is straining airports, airlines and air traffic control and also threatening to exacerbate disruptions and costs.

ACCOUNTING FOR DISASTERS

Globally, bad weather, natural disasters and labour strikes cost the travel industry up to an estimated US$60 billion (S$81 billion) a year, or about 8 per cent of global industry revenues, according to a report released last year and commissioned by Spanish firm Amadeus, which manages booking systems for many airlines.

"Unfortunately, natural disasters and disruptions are unpredictable, but a part of life," Ms Sanghamitra Bose, general manager Singapore, American Express Global Business Travel, told The Sunday Times in an e-mail.

"While some natural disasters close airports, as we have seen with the eruption of Mount Agung in Bali over this last week, we find that business travel resumes almost immediately after the disruption has been cleared," she said.

For hotels and tour operators, however, major disruptions can be costly.

Typhoon Damrey caused major flooding and damage to central Vietnam last month, killing more than 100 people. The historic city of Hoi An was inundated during the peak of the tourist season.

Mr Jack Tran Khoa, president of Jack Tran Tours which conducts tours in Hoi An, told The Sunday Times: "Tourists were afraid of entering Hoi An. My company had US$10,000 worth of tour bookings cancelled during the storm. Few tourists wanted to postpone their tour. Instead, they continued to the south, where there was no storm."

Others went to Danang in the north, he added. "They saw the flood, got scared and left. Some even cried."

Floods also hit provinces north and east of Bangkok this year. But travel agencies contacted by The Sunday Times said tourism was not affected as the flood-hit districts were not tourist destinations.

In South Korea, it was an earthquake - a rare occurrence there - that hurt the tourism sector.

In September last year, a 5.8 magnitude quake damaged the ancient city of Gyeongju. School trips and group tours were cancelled en masse. The number of visitors plunged 47 per cent to 570,000 that month over the same period in 2015.

Tourism-related losses that month alone reached more than 17 billion won (S$21 million). Visitors stayed away, and it was only in April this year, when cherry blossoms were in bloom, that visitor numbers finally rebounded, to 2.45 million.

Japan has been battered by strong typhoons like Lan which smashed into Tokyo in October, and Talim in September. In January, heavy snow crippled transport systems in Hokkaido. Stranded travellers had to sleep at the New Chitose Airport. Overall, though, the number of foreign visitors to Japan has already surpassed last year's record of 24.04 million.

So what is the best advice for travellers to minimise disruption?

Good travel insurance, monitoring local news sites and staying in touch with colleagues or relatives are some basics. Another is not to take undue risks.

Mr Kapoor of Carlson Wagonlit and Ms Bose of American Express said that for business travellers, it is essential to stay in touch to expedite evacuation if necessary.

"It's now more important than ever for companies to be able to track and communicate with their business travellers in times of disruption," said Ms Bose. A variety of travel apps also help because they can give alerts on anything from gate changes to bad weather.

"It's about how prepared we are. The better prepared travellers and organisations are, the less worrisome travel disruptions become," said Mr Kapoor.

•Additional reporting by Tan Hui Yee in Bangkok, Goh Sui Noi and Lina Miao in Beijing, Trinna Leong in Kuala Lumpur, Raul Dancel in Manila, Chang May Choon in Seoul and Walter Sim in Tokyo

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Where travel weathers the storm'. Print Edition | Subscribe