By Veronica Lam
IFTM Comments is a partnership between Macau News Agency and Macao Institute for Tourism Studies
A few weeks ago, as I stepped out from a fast-food franchised outlet, one of the staff helped to open the door for me and politely bid me “good-bye”. All of a sudden, it felt like I just walked out of a five-star property. Up to now, I have not got used to that odd experience and am not sure whether what had happened was the result of the restaurant’s Covid-19 policy, the economic downturn or both.
Looking back, the rapid development of the tourism industry in the past 15 years has kept Macao busy. A large number of visitor arrivals has caused the small city to lose its equilibrium as the result of exceeding its tourism carry capacity. The number of visitor arrivals in 1999, the year of the hand-over of Macao from the Portuguese governance to China, was about 7.5 million. The number of visitor arrivals was nearly 17 million in 2004, which was the same year the first Las Vegas owned casino Sands Macao opened. Since then, the number increased steadily and reached about 39.5 million in 2019. However, due to the travel restrictions of Covid-19, the lockdown of cities and the closing of borders, the number of visitor arrivals in Macao dropped dramatically and recorded only 5.9 million in 2020. For a city like Macao which relies heavily on the tourism industry, the situation has affected many businesses and the livelihood of many people directly or indirectly.
On account of the sharp fall of the Macao tourism industry and the negative impact on the economies, it is time for the entire city to pause and to reflect on the influences brought by the expeditious development in the tourism industry in such a short period of time. The rapid growth of tourism has kept different sectors of the industry running and rushing to meet the demand and the interest of the tourist markets. There was a time when high school leavers joined the gaming workforce instead of pursuing higher education enticed by attractive salary. Limited local facilities such as public transportations and shopping areas had been shared between tourists and local people. Today, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity not only for business to pause but also for Macao citizens to slow down and gaze at the city where they have worked so hard in the past years in order to help build Macao’s thriving industry. Apart from my recent five-star-like service experience in the fast-food restaurant, the slowing down of the city has offered Macao local citizens many new experiences. For example, local customers have received more attention and assistance from the frontline staff in retail stores, restaurants and public transportations which used-to-be crowded with visitors. The low hotel occupancy has driven promotions which have allowed local citizens to experience staycation. More than that, citizens received government subsidies to participate in local tours to visit famous tourist attractions and event facilities. Moreover, the first local world heritage tour for people with disabilities has been organized by a social enterprise run by Caritas Macau in January this year.
Apart from understanding that the current stage for Macao tourism is to promote Macao as a Covid-free city, Macao as a smart city and its integration with Greater Bay Area development, it is also important to ensure and improve the living quality and the well-being of the local citizens while serving visitors. In my PhD study which explores what tourists value the most while travelling to Macau, an important finding shows that one of the values offered by Macao is its exclusive friendly host which was formed by the warm hospitality of the local people and the nice service of the tourism industry. Since 28.5% of the Macao population is employed directly by the tourism-related sectors, such as hotels, restaurants, gaming, recreations, and retail business, good social and employee welfare is a profitable investment for the tourism development as the friendly host and human touch in the local Macao style has always been the unique selling point in the destination marketing of Macao.