Q&A | James Liang Jianzhang: ‘The data says we should be optimistic about November, December’

The chairman and co-founder of Trip.com Group, China’s largest online tour agency, co-hosted a special livestreaming event yesterday at The Venetian Macao integrated resort hoping to draw mainland visitors back to visiting Macau ahead of a major public holiday next week.
Dressed in the iconic striped shirt and straw hat of the traditional Venetian gondolier, Chairman James Liang Jianzhang led a two-hour live broadcast in Mandarin promoting the Macau SAR as a travel destination.
The promotion was aired on the same day that applications for travel endorsements to Macau resumed across China, a watershed moment that many in Macau are hoping will mark the beginning of the city’s tourism recovery. That hope is shared by Liang, who told Macau Daily Times yesterday that that although Chinese travelers would not make it in time for Golden Week, a more meaningful recovery was to be expected by November or December this year.
Headquartered in Shanghai, Trip.com Group owns and operates some of the biggest brands in the online travel agency market, including Trip.com, Ctrip and Skyscanner.
In partnership with integrated resorts managed by Sands China, Trip.com is offering “steep discounts” on local tourism products to help reignite the visitor market.
“We want to offer the best products and the best deals for the first wave of consumers,” Liang told the media just hours before yesterday’s broadcast. “Next year when the full recovery is in process, they won’t get the best discounts. But in the first few months, we will offer very steep discounts via our Trip.com platform.”
Liang is famous for dressing in the traditional clothing of the city or region he visits for the livestreaming events. He has completed more than 20 broadcasts so far, he said, but admitted yesterday to being “very excited” to host his first livestream show outside of mainland China.
As a tourism sector veteran, Liang is also prized for his insights into China’s travel market.
Not only is China the world’s largest outbound travel market and its biggest spender, but it might be the only country to see domestic tourism restored to pre-Covid-19 levels before the end of the year. Already, the business is “about 80% or 90% back to normal,” according to Liang.
Macau Daily Times sat down with Liang to learn more about the what the Chinese traveler wants in 2020 and how Macau’s battered tourism sector will fare in the remainder of the year.

Macau Daily Times (MDT) – What kind of destinations is the Chinese traveler looking at in 2020?
James Liang Jianzhang (JL) – I think that Chinese travelers are looking for leisure and high-end destinations. For these kinds of destinations in the mainland, we are already at about 80 or 90 percent [of the pre-Covid-19 level]. The best-selling products on our platform right now are resort hotels in an open natural space, for example in the mountains, or near hot springs. There is also a lot of interest in places that are very far away [from large population centers], for example Tibet, Yunnan and Hainan. These places around the border [of China] are very popular right now. But if you travel just two or three hours from Shanghai, there are many historical towns that are also popular. Some of them are [authentic] old towns, but others are newly recreated in the style [of imperial China]. It is a kind of pseudo-historical experience, because it is not really a historical place, but they make it feel like one.

MDT – Tourism in Hainan Province has not only recovered, it is booming. What is drawing so many visitors to the tropical island?
JL – Business in Hainan has already more than recovered! It is actually seeing about 20 to 30% year-on-year growth. That’s because this is really the only tropical destination that China can offer, and if people cannot go to Thailand, they will go to Hainan. There are not many tropical alternatives to Hainan within China and so it is kind of unique. [However, some of that tourism demand] might even spillover to Guangxi and maybe some of the Guangdong beach resorts. But that is just the nature of their natural resources.

MDT – If Covid-19 travel restrictions persist into next year, will small tourism-dependent economies have to rethink the makeup of their economies?
JL – It is going to be very tough for some of the small destination-countries. It is hard to say what the future will look like. If Covid-19 lasts for just one or two years, the recovery process will [take us back to where we were]. But if it’s longer than two years, then destinations will have to adjust. It will be painful. They will have to cater to domestic travelers. They will have to adjust to some other industries. But if this lasts for just one year or two, the situation of the travel industry should remain the same.

MDT – Does Macau fall into that bracket?
JL – I think Macau doesn’t have to worry about that. The China government always tries to treat Macau as a domestic city so as long as the pandemic situation is basically similar [between the two places], the tourists will be allowed to come back to Macau.
MDT – What does the data from your travel platforms indicate about visitor arrivals to Macau this upcoming Golden Week?
JL – Right now the data is saying that it will take a few weeks [for interest in Macau to pick up]. The reason is that not many people have realized that Macau is open. We are trying to communicate this message to our potential customers through our livestreams and our marketing programs next month. [But Chinese travelers] still think of Macau and Hong Kong as a single package. Macau has a very rich experience to offer [on its own], so people can spend a few days just in Macau during the National Holiday. If they want to combine it with another destination, there is Zhuhai or Hengqin, and it can be an even richer experience. We expect a fast recovery of tourism-related business in Macau, although it takes about a week to process the visa application [for travel endorsements] so most people will not have their visa approved in time for Golden Week. But after Golden Week, I think we should be more optimistic about November and December.

MDT – There is a lot of talk about pent-up tourism and gaming demand across the border. What types of visitors will be the first to return?
JL – The small group of loyal casino customers will definitely be among the first people to return to Macau, but in terms of numbers, they are very few. I think Macau is not just a destination for casino visitors, but for young travelers and family entertainment too. The families will probably come later because they will have to wait for the right vacation period, probably in the winter. But the young [adult] travelers will find it very attractive to come here. The majority might be coming from Guangdong, but some also come from Beijing and Shanghai, and other major cities.

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