One year on – travel is still so tempting

Song Saa is an idyllic island committed to providing employment for the local community and conserving Cambodia’s landscape
Janice Gault

THIS time last year, I was making my way through Hong Kong Airport after spending time in Macau and Cambodia.

It was an amazing trip - Macau is the Asian equivalent of Las Vegas with its own Paris, pyramids and a myriad of casinos.

Lots of shopping, lots of people and that pulsating Asian vibe. From there, it was on to Song Saa, an idyllic island committed to providing employment for the local community and conserving Cambodia's landscape.

It was a strange journey home. Hong Kong had just closed its borders with China. Travellers from the west coast of America were suddenly stranded. There was lots of screaming and little understanding of the situation. Face masks are commonplace in Asia and I remember noting the majority of people in the airport wearing them.

Flying home, direct to Manchester and then catching a short hop flight with Flybe to Belfast, was an easy journey. But this was to be last flight I took in 2020.

One year on, Flybe is no more. Song Saa has been closed for large parts of the year with the work of its foundation stalled. Macau is like a ghost town and banking on technology to restore its fortunes in the short term. Hotel occupancy is down over 80 per cent and tourists are in short supply. Poignant reminders of the casualties Covid-19 have left in its wake.

What a difference a year makes. Little did I realise that a virus in China that had caused an issue for travellers in Hong Kong airport would spread across the globe. The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc and decimated global tourism.

Among its many victims, the hotel industry in Northern Ireland, which is currently in lockdown having traded at under a third of its previous year's level.

Unfortunately, we are not out the far side yet as the health position remains precarious. New support measures have given a much-needed lifeline. A date for reopening is not yet on the horizon.

But stories from those who have reopened and started on the pathway to recovery has given much hope. A controlled return to trading/business without the constant threat of lockdown is what the hotel sector needs.

There is a lot of talk about reopening for Easter. It's incredible to think that Easter 2020 was part of the first lockdown. If hotels remain closed for this coming Easter, it will mark a 12-month milestone most would prefer to forget.

I don't think anyone thought we would be in this position almost a year on. Times are tough, but like many people, my desire to travel has not gone away.

Vaccination is under way, and coupled with appropriate support, will help preserve the tourism economy. The next time I travel my attitude will be very different, no longer blasé. I will relish the experience and enjoy every moment. My bag is packed, I'm ready to go. I just hope it will be soon!

:: Janice Gault is chief executive of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation (NIHF)

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