Authorities in Macao reported that there hasn’t been a single Covid-19 case in more than six months. The hospitality and tourism sector in the city are seeing positive signs of recovery since tourist visas for all Chinese tourists were allowed again on the 23rd of September 2020.
In 2019, Macao welcomed 39.4 million tourists followed by an abrupt drop in 2020 to nearly no movement. In 2021, the special administrative region foresees a solid recovery with more than 10 million visitors. We sat down with Maria Helena de Senna Fernandes, director of the Macao Government Tourism Office.
1. Authorities in Macao reacted very fast to the Covid-19 pandemic, and could foresee what was coming ahead. What was your ‘secret’?
In hindsight, the Macao Special Administrative Region (SAR) Government’s swift response and measures appeared critically timely and effective. The priority has always been to ensure the safety of Macao residents and avoid at all costs an outbreak in the community.
Following the first case reported in Macao on 22nd January last year, our city recorded only 48 cases to date, with no deaths, and our community has been able to lead a normal life for many months now.
We must hand this good record to our top leaders who took a string of tough decisions starting from late January last year. Our health authorities and all related public and private sectors have worked together with good results in combatting Covid-19, with a very important factor that the local community has been very supportive. Another key element that contributed to Macao’s swift response in fighting the challenges was the joint defence action with Mainland China, especially with our neighbor city of Zhuhai. Also to mention is that the city had previously invested in a robust system, including a complete legal framework, to handle any outbreak of communicable diseases after SARS.
Albeit the good results, the Government is not lowering its guard, and a strict system remains in place to monitor all entries of residents and allowed visitors for COVID-19. The Macao SAR Government is committed to persist in the strategy of “preventing imported cases and a rebound of Covid-19”.
2. Are foreign visitors still ban to entry in Macao?
Foreign visitors are still generally banned from entry to Macao, apart from specific cases analysed on individual basis. Visitors from Greater China (meaning Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan region) are allowed entry if holding a negative COVID-19 test if they have remained in Mainland China, whilst if they have visited Hong Kong or Taiwan region in the past 21 and 14 days, they need to undergo medical observation in designated hotels for two and three weeks respectively, and if they were in a foreign country 21 days prior to coming to Macao they will be denied entry. Residents also need to present negative COVID-19 tests upon entry, and undergo medical observation in designated hotels when returning to Macao from Hong Kong, Taiwan region or abroad.
3. One year ago, in February 2020, a strict border control was imposed on foreigners (including people from mainland China) and even Macanese living abroad. This had a cost on the travel and tourism industry. A difficult decision clearly. How was this decision and all its implications?
It goes without saying that the impact of the travel restrictions have been dramatic for us, as Macao is a tourism city. Due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Macao recorded around 5.9 million (-85.0%) visitor arrivals in 2020, compared to 39.4 million (+10.1%) in 2019, the lowest results since the mid-1990s.
Our government came in to rescue early on, with two packages of measures to relieve the economic impact of Covid-19, announced in February and April last year to support the community, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, and boost domestic consumption. This included an array of tourism-related taxes and fees waived, and much more.
Hopefully, we believe that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, given that the stabilization of the pandemic situation in Macao and the Mainland has allowed tourism flows to gradually start between the two places since mid-August, along with the current roll out of vaccination. Macao SAR Government is focused on fostering efforts to accelerate recovery of the local economy, with efforts to rebound tourism playing a central role in the process.
4. The UN World Tourism Organization’s Tourism Barometer estimates a USD 1.3 trillion loss due to the sharp drop in international travel and 1 billion fewer international arrivals in 2020. In this scenario, how have hotels, tour operators and others adapted their business models in Macao to compensate for the drop in international tourism?
When the pandemic situation stabilized in Macao and amid travel restrictions in force in the region and around the world, in Summer last year, to help revitalize the tourism industry, we turned our focus to domestic tourism in our city, which normally is not the target of our operators given that we are a tourism city with a population of over 683 thousand people. This proved to be a rewarding experience on different levels.
The focus on domestic tourism led MGTO to launch the “Macao Ready Go!” program, under which we created an e-platform to promote discounts and packages offered by local merchants for dining, shopping, hotel stays, entertainment, spas and more, to boost tourism consumption. The platform was launched in June last year, and aside from residents, it is now also being promoted to Mainland China visitors.
Under the program, MGTO, together with local tourism associations, also launched the initiative “Macao Ready Go! Local Tours” that ran between June and September last year. Macao travel trade had to come up with 25 “outside the box” themed itineraries for our residents, as they already know Macao inside out. The initiative was crowned with success, attracting nearly 140 thousand participants. The tours helped to create job opportunities for hundreds of workers from travel agencies, tour guides and coach drivers, while also providing a holiday experience to our residents and yielding economic benefits of approximately MOP57.40 million. Riding on the popularity of some of the tours, our travel trade already launched new products in the market targeting visitors as well.
Hotels and resorts also turned their focus to local residents, and have been promoting a string of “staycation” packages to attract local residents to stay in their facilities for a holiday experience at home. Statistics show that many residents have been enjoying a break in the local hotels and themed resorts. Albeit for the whole year of 2020, the average occupancy rate of guest rooms sank by 62.2 percentage points year-on-year, local guests rose by 3.2% to 630,000. In December alone, local guests increased by 15.7%.
5. Is mainland China now your exclusive market?
With tourism exchanges between Macao and Mainland China now gradually resuming, the focus turned to the Mainland China market, where we are highlighting Macao’s image as a safe destination, along with its diverse and quality tourism offer, bolstering travelers’ confidence and striving for more and longer visitations. A string of promotional efforts have been launched one after the other.
Following the resumption of travel permit issuance for Mainland residents to Macao, the Macao SAR Government conducted its first mega promotional event after the pandemic in Beijing last September, a “Beijing Macao Week”, which engaged around 800,000 spectators, with 75 million views of KOLs’ live streams during the event. At the same time, under the umbrella of the Government’s scheme to “expand visitor source, revive the economy and secure employment opportunities”, MGTO partnered with several major e-commerce companies to promote special offers and attract Mainland visitors to Macao. On one of such collaborative projects, with Tencent, as of 31 December 2020, 1.37 million cash vouchers were distributed and had 100,483 room nights redeemed from hotel coupons. The cash vouchers drove a transaction amount of RMB 315 million in a leverage ratio of 23.
This cooperation with e-commerce platforms is ongoing, as well as promotional efforts on social media, while MGTO plans to conduct a number of programs and tourism industry promotion activities in several neighboring Mainland China cities in Guangdong province, and at the same time continue to evaluate the feasibility of hosting promotion activities similar to the “Macao Week in Beijing” in other major cities in the Mainland.
At the same time, we are launching new products, such as the remodeled Macao Grand Prix Museum, slated to open for trial operation very soon, with four floors of “educational fun” about Macao’s iconic race, while new integrated resorts are opening, such as the Londoner and the upcoming Grand Lisboa Palace, and more.
6. This month you announced that “Macao aims at receiving 10 millions visitors in 2021”. Where do they come from? What is your visitors strategy for the months ahead? Will there be any particular markets that will have a higher priority than others?
The Covid-19 vaccination is giving hopes that we are finally on track for recovery and travel flows will gradually resume around the world, although we are not foreseeing an exponential increase in visitor arrivals for this year yet.
Currently the forecast is for Macao to welcome between six to ten million visitors in 2021. However, at this stage it is difficult to lay out an accurate estimation, as there is still great uncertainty, related to the unfolding of the pandemic and the speed of immunization, along with implementation of travel protocols around the world.
Since the pandemic situation is stabilized in both Macao and Mainland China, and tourism exchanges between both sides have resumed in a phased manner since mid-August, for this year we expect visitors to come mostly from the Mainland. Hopefully conditions will be in place for tourism flows to gradually improve with our other two top visitor-source markets, namely Hong Kong and Taiwan region, as currently there is still the need to undergo quarantine upon arrival in Macao. As for the international market, at the moment visitors from other countries are not allowed entry in the city as a COVID-19 prevention measure, and we hope to see the situation regionally and globally improve in the near future as well.
7. How is the vaccination rollout coming along? Any rough estimates regarding timelines? What are the main challenges ahead?
The Covid-19 vaccination scheme in Macao is in full swing. The priority group vaccination initiated on 9th February and for general population vaccination started 22nd February. Our top leaders took the vaccine jabs on the first day, including the Macao SAR Chief Executive, Mr. Ho Iat Seng, encouraging Macao residents to follow suit.
Local vaccination is voluntary and free of charge for Macao residents, non-resident workers, non-local students enrolled in Macao, and incarcerated persons. Non-residents with authorization to stay in Macao can also have the vaccine upon payment (MOP250).
The Macau SAR Government has purchased enough doses of vaccines for the whole population, which are arriving to the city in batches, and include the vaccine developed by Sinopharm, the mRNA-based vaccine by BioNTech, distributed in China by Fosun Pharma, along with doses of the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca. Those willing to be vaccinated in Macao can choose which type of vaccine they prefer.
As of March 1st, over 34 thousand people have already registered to be inoculated, according to our Novel Coronavirus Response and Coordination Centre.
8. Are you considering a “vaccine passport”?
The vaccination schemes will give people greater confidence to restart travel. However, currently Macao health authorities do not consider the inoculation of the vaccine a criteria for residents or permitted visitors to enter the city, or to be exempted from presenting a valid negative test for Covid-19, undergo medical observation in designated hotels or other prevention and control measures. We will continue to be alert of any changes in this respect.
9. How will the world look when the pandemic is finally under control? How can we resurface from this pandemic with a more sustainable model of traveling?
While much uncertainty remains in the air, there is a general consensus that a seismic shift took place and post-Covid-19 travel will never be the same, involving health protocols, and visitors preferring more in-depth and meaningful travel experiences.
Over the last year, in fact we witnessed a positive shift here in Macao: albeit overall visitor arrivals and expenditure saw a steep decline, those who did come, stayed longer and spent more. This is a trend our city has long been aiming for on the road towards sustainable development, and we want to continue to encourage visitors to stay more days, for a more in-depth experience in our city and a bigger contribution to the economy.
Statistics show that the average length of stay of all visitors and overnight-stay visitors to Macao both saw an increase in 2020. The average length of stay of all visitors was 1.4 days, a year-on-year rise of 0.2 of a day while that of overnight-stay visitors was 2.8 days, a year-on-year increase of 0.6 of a day. At the same time, per-capita spending of visitors in 2020 (excluding gaming expenses) increased by 24.5% year-on-year (to MOP2,025), although there was a 81.4% year-on-year drop of total spending of visitors (to MOP11.94 billion). In the last quarter of 2020 alone, per-capita spending increased 77.3% year-on-year (to MOP3,129), whereas total spending of visitors decreased by 63.8% (to MOP5.88 billion).
In accord with the changes brought by the pandemic to the tourism environment, and with the overall aim to foster sustainable tourism development and adequate diversification of the economy, towards the end of last year MGTO launched a revision of the Macao Tourism Industry Development Master Plan, which was announced in 2017. We are now reviewing the city’s tourism positioning, evaluating the latest strengths and constraints of Macao’s tourism industry as well as development opportunities and challenges, in addition to proposing medium- and long-term key action plans.
MGTO is in the meantime investing in deepening “tourism +” cross-sector integration and promoting captivating tourism products of “tourism + MICE”, “tourism + culture and creativity”, “tourism + sports”, and more, to steer the tourism industry towards recovery and generating greater momentum to move other industries forward.
10. Macao is a fascinating place where the West meets the East, thanks to your Portuguese heritage. Millions of westerns tourists are seduced by this melting pot and used to visit it every year. When do expect that can happen again?
While promotional work targeting Mainland China is being carried out, in terms of other markets, for now, MGTO will continue to organize and participate in online seminars and presentations while leveraging online platforms continuously to distribute Macao’s tourism information. When regional and international tourism markets resume, MGTO will devote greater efforts in precision marketing, promoting tourism products to target market segments so as to attract international visitors to Macao for travel and consumption, in turn revitalizing the local economy.
11. What destinations are on your radar for 2021 and 2022? What places would you recommend to Travel Tomorrow’s readers?
I would recommend travelers to put Macao on their list as we wait for conditions to be in place for a safe return of travel around the world.
We look forward to being able to welcome visitors from other regions and countries for a full immersion on our east-meets-west UNESCO listed heritage, the Historic Centre of Macao, hotels and themed resorts, along with an experience of the diverse dining offer of Macao as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy, its shopping offer, as well as major events like the Macao Light Festival, and more.
Visitors dreaming to come to Macao when travel restrictions are lifted, are also invited to explore multidestination tourism in what we call the Greater Bay Area of Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao, or “9+2”, meaning nine Guangdong province cities, plus the two SARs of Hong Kong and Macao.
There is new momentum in the integration of our region, with one of the goals being to build the Greater Bay Area (GBA) into a world-class tourism destination. Strategic development frameworks for our region have already been laid out, namely the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, released in February 2019, along with others for specific areas, including the Development Plan for Cultural and Tourism Sectors in Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, just announced recently.
Landmark transport infrastructures are opening in tandem and changing the way we travel and perceive distance between our cluster of cities, as we strive to reduce travelling time among major cities within the GBA to one hour or less. The 55-kilometer Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, in particular, is a connectivity breakthrough in our region.
The increased integration and travel efficiency in our region is set to generate more multi-destination products, taking advantage of GBA’s diverse tourism offer, ranging from cultural heritage, gastronomy, events and festivals, natural and maritime resources, MICE, medical and wellness tourism and much more for our visitors to explore.