Tour agencies welcome news of China’s reopening but labour crunch is cause for concern
Some local firms are ramping up hiring to prepare for the anticipated surge in tourists from mainland China.
SINGAPORE: News of China relaxing its strict travel restrictions has sparked a glimmer of hope for Singapore’s COVID-battered travel and tour agencies.
On Monday (Dec 26), China's National Health Commission (NHC) announced that it would downgrade its management of COVID-19 from its top tier of infectious diseases, easing curbs on its borders, which have been largely shut since 2020.
Following the announcement, global travel service provider Trip.com reported a surge in outbound flight bookings from mainland China, with Singapore being one of the top five tourist destinations.
Speaking to CNA, local travel agency Siam Express said that it has received more enquiries from mainland China, mainly from business travellers and high-end customers.
“We were actually expecting China to open up mid-next year so the news came as a bit of a shock and now we’re short on manpower,” said the company’s business development manager Cathy Xia.
While the company had nearly 30 employees before the pandemic - including travel agents - the number has now dwindled to eight.
To prepare for the anticipated surge in Chinese tourists, who made up the majority of their customers pre-COVID, Siam Express said it is ramping up recruitment.
“Hiring will be challenging because we also need time to train new staff and we also have to give a refresher course for experienced Mandarin-speaking tour guides because they have not had a job in nearly three years,” Ms Xia added.
Although China has said that it will scrap quarantine rules for overseas arrivals from Jan 8, authorities have not been clear on rules for citizens looking to travel abroad.
In an online notice, the NHC said that the outbound travel of Chinese citizens will be “resumed in an orderly manner” but did not give a date on when this would begin.
“We will be waiting for official statements to determine the actual number of arrivals (in Singapore),” said Chan Brothers Travel’s senior marketing communications manager Jeremiah Wong, adding the company is currently updating quotations, contracts, and rates from hotels, attractions, guides, and restaurants.
Based on data from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), China was Singapore’s top international visitor-generating market in 2019, bringing around 3.6 million Chinese residents to Singapore. This accounted for nearly 19 per cent of Singapore's total international visitor arrivals.
China was also the top contributor to Singapore’s tourism receipts in 2019, generating S$900 million.
While industry players welcomed the news of China’s impending reopening, some expressed concerns about the current manpower shortage in tourism-related sectors.
CNA has previously reported labour crunches in the hospitality as well as aviation industries.
In August, Transport Minister S Iswaran said the manpower of Singapore’s aviation sector was still well below pre-COVID levels, despite 4,000 new recruits joining in the first half of this year.
He added that there had been about a one-third attrition of aviation workers, resulting in a significant loss of capability.
Manpower constraints in the food and beverage sector have also had an impact on tour agencies like Siam Express, which is trying to curate unique experiences such as tea ceremonies at tea houses or cocktail tours for its customers.
“Some of these vendors already have very good business from the locals and may find it difficult to arrange more manpower to cater to tourists,” said Ms Xia.
“We will see more visitors and Singapore is going to get more businesses for everyone but I’m also worried because I don't think we are ready at this moment to handle the sudden influx of visitors from China,” said Mr Stanley Foo, founder and managing director of Oriental Travel & Tours.
“As it is, we are already seeing a shortage in the hospitality industry, the hotels, tour agencies, attractions and airports, where they cannot even handle the current number of consumers,” he added.
“So when the Chinese tourists come back, would we be able to handle them?”