James Liang, Chairman & Co-founder, Trip.com Group

IF TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS are lifted between Singapore and another country such that you don’t have to quarantine yourself upon arrival, you should take advantage of it immediately – chances are, you’ll be able to get great deals on hotels and attractions, without the crowds and queues.

So says James Liang, chairman and co-founder of Trip.com Group, a China-based travel services group which runs four platforms: Trip.com, Ctrip, Skyscanner and Qunar. These aggregate information on prices of hotels, flights and other products to help travellers get the most bang for their buck.

In the past few months, the  group has seen demand for inbound travel in China jump to approximately 80 percent of its pre-pandemic levels, fueled by the fact that outbound travel is still restricted by global border controls. With the coronavirus crisis largely under control within China, domestic flights are even operating at near-full capacity.

The Trip.com Group is even capitalising on pent-up wanderlust by livestreaming sale events of heavily-discounted hotel stays around the world, all of which come with flexible arrangements that allow you to cancel or postpone the reservation with little or no penalty. These livestreamed events have achieved over US$70 million in sales and a viewership of millions.

What everyone wants to know is, when can we travel internationally again? What’s your prediction?

Well, a very small window recently opened, suggesting that that is what needs to happen before international travel can resume – which is, China and Macau are now allowing people to travel between the two countries without being quarantined. Macau has had near-zero infections for months, so it has become the first overseas destination for international travel for the Chinese. Hopefully we'll see more agreements taking place between countries that have low infection rates in the near future, even though it'll be quite a while before that happens. I don't see it happening in a big way in Q3, but we should see more countries forming these quarantine-free zones by Q4… You know, I honestly can’t predict when things would return to normal. It's up to the virus and medical technology. But given what the stock market is doing now, it does seem that many people are predicting that things will return to normal soon. Travel stocks have regained 30 to 50 percent of their losses. And within the next six months, they would probably go up to 80 to 90 percent of their pre-pandemic levels. So people are certainly optimistic.

What about travel between Asia and Europe, and Asia and the US?

Oh, that’ll be much later. That will come last. Probably early next year.

There is a theory that the future of travel is going to be determined by the wealthy who are the only ones who can afford a high level of safety, privacy and exclusivity in their travel arrangements. And then hopefully, some of the solutions that emerge can be scaled for the rest of the global population. What do you think of that theory?

Well, that’s not the situation in China at the moment. China has got the pandemic pretty much under control, so people are not so afraid to travel anymore. Hotels and airlines have slashed rates, and it is the middle-class that’s taking advantage of the discounts. Consequently both the hotel and airline industry have started to recover. And it’s not just China experiencing this – we are also seeing a similar rebound in domestic travel in other countries such as Korea and Japan. Singapore, of course, is a little different in this respect.

If the middle-class is embracing domestic travel in a big way, what are the wealthy up to?

They are also spending their money on domestic travel, and they’re opting to bring entire families to these huge theme parks where they stay for a few days and enjoy the many attractions within the parks. China today has some of the best tourist sites in the world and the pandemic has actually made wealthy Chinese go to these attractions instead of travelling abroad. Chimelong, for instance, is a major operator of theme parks. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom has the largest oceanarium in the world. Chimelong Safari Park is the biggest wildlife theme park in Asia. And then there are also these mini towns that are inspired by, say, the Song dynasty or the Han dynasty. All these attractions are so huge, you can spend a few days there. So that’s where the wealthy are going to these days – because the hotels in these theme parks are not that cheap to begin with. When we get over this pandemic, I actually think these domestic attractions will get more investments, and high-end domestic travel products will get a boost.

When we get over this pandemic, what are some changes that will remain with us for good?

Business travel will definitely take a hit. The pandemic has made us all turn to teleconferencing. And we’ve gotten used to virtual meetings and interviews, which we’ve found to be quite effective and much cheaper. But business travel is a small part of overall travel. Overall travel should still continue to grow, and I don’t think the outlook for travel will change much. People still want to see the world.

How much of the travel industry would have disappeared when things return to normal?

If I had to guess, I would put it at 20 to 30 percent. There are many small travel companies that rely on international travellers that would not last another six months of these travel restrictions, if they’ve lasted this far. Low-end hotels would also have to close because they just don’t have the financial resources to continue. Of course, there are the big companies that are suffering a lot too, such as cruises and airlines –  some of the weaker ones won’t make it.

It must be said, though, that many environmentalists are happy about the fact that the world is travelling less and our carbon footprint has gone down dramatically. What do you think of that?

I think that if people didn’t travel, the human race as we know it would not exist. We would not have left Africa and formed human settlements across the globe. Of course travelling changes the environment. But I’ve been to different parts of the world, less developed parts, where they have beautiful natural sceneries which provide many kinds of jobs. Without the travel industry, some of these economies would suffer greatly. And then they would have to resort to other industries like mining or fishing or intensive agriculture, which also damage the environment.  

As chairman of a travel group that aggregates information and makes recommendations, which destinations would you recommend to the Singaporean traveller?

Anywhere at all that doesn’t require you to be quarantined when you arrive. In fact, as soon as these kinds of quarantine-free agreements come into effect between Singapore and another country, you should get a ticket and go there. Flights and hotels are being hugely discounted. You may even find – as I did these past few months travelling through China – that you’re only the guest in the entire hotel.