Segregated business travel lane in S'pore crucial in building confidence, say experts

The travel arrangement aims to allow those from countries of different Covid-19 risk profiles to meet in a controlled space in Singapore. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - The new segregated travel lane arrangement for business meetings is likely to have only a small impact on Singapore's economy, experts said, although it could be important to increasing the country's reputation as a safe place for business.

This is all the more important as Singapore prepares to host the World Economic Forum (WEF) in May next year, which was shifted from Switzerland when the WEF decided the Republic was best placed to host the annual high-profile meeting.

On Tuesday (Dec 15), the Ministry of Trade and Industry announced a new scheme that will let foreign businessmen travel here to dedicated buildings equipped with facilities to hold meetings with locals, as well as with businessmen from other countries.

It aims to allow those from countries of different Covid-19 risk profiles to meet in a controlled space, boosting Singapore's reputation as a business hub and allowing a tentative resumption of face-to-face meetings that have largely been shifted online this year.

CIMB private banking economist Song Seng Wun said it will be read as proof that Singapore, although not the cheapest place to host business meetings, can be the safest place for international meetings.

He added that "every little initiative to build confidence helps", especially when the $28 billion tourism sector, which includes business travel, has been badly hurt.

"We have fallen a long way from our peak, so these calculated steps to ease restrictions all go towards helping as many people as possible to claw back some business. The more we can reassure business travellers, the better," he said.

"It is a glimmer of hope that businesses may be starting to come back. If we can sell more, whether directly or indirectly, it is a plus."

National University of Singapore Business School Associate Professor Lawrence Loh said the scheme works only because of Singapore's success in the past few months in controlling local transmission of the coronavirus.

"The place itself has to be safe. Otherwise, no matter the scheme, people will think twice about coming here," he said. "This is one of the first steps we can take to pivot back to situations where personal interactions are necessary."

Businesses noted that face-to-face interactions remain ideal for building trust and making investment decisions. They said that virtual meetings, while convenient, cannot replace real-life communication entirely.

United States aviation company Kelley Aerospace, which recently opened its first base at Seletar, said the speed of key business information exchange has been hindered by Covid-19 constraints on cross-border meetings.

"Face-to-face meetings are still invaluable in facilitating rapid information exchange, executing change and creating strong business partnerships, especially for the upper management," a spokesman said.

"We are excited to explore how we can utilise it to ramp our business speed back up."

Mr Lai Chang Wen, e-commerce delivery firm Ninja Van's co-founder and chief executive officer, said: "Face-to-face meetings and interactions are essential to building strong and meaningful business relationships, especially in South-east Asia.

"Having this option will complement Ninja Van's current efforts that leverage on digital tools and platforms to connect with our business partners across the region."

Recovery on a greater scale, however, will have to await the establishment of more substantial air travel bubbles that include personal and leisure travel, said independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie from Sobie Aviation.

"The number of passengers generated by the schemes for business travellers, such as the reciprocal green lanes, have so far not been that significant. Travel bubbles open up a much bigger segment," he said.

"Even then, the recovery would be relatively small scale in the initial phases. There will be no large-scale recovery for at least several months."

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