EDITORIAL – Rolling up the sleeves

Macau Business Editorial | January 2023 | By José Carlos Matias – Director 

The auspicious date of January 8 saw the dismantling of basically all the travel restrictions and other control measures that remained in Macau from nigh on three years of strict pandemic management. This heartily welcomed policy shift finally clears the path to much-needed economic recovery. At last, there is a way forward, one of hope, mobility and development.

The pages of this magazine in the past year, namely in recent months, have borne repeated suggestions for a departure from the severity of the zero-COVID policy, pointing to what might be learned from the reopening of other countries and economies the world over, our neighbours in particular. What most of us never anticipated, though, was the suddenness and the sharpness of the turn in both policy and narrative. Don’t get me wrong: the case for swift reopening truly is strong. We’ve been reiterating just how urgent it was to move in this direction.

But the problem lies in what has appeared in the last few weeks to be a lack of preparedness or a well-thought-out plan on the part of the authorities. This has caught many of us by surprise – yours truly included – and has come as a disappointment following the health authorities’ track record over the past couple of years, highly regarded across many segments of society.

The city was neither expecting nor prepared to face the shortage of medication in pharmacies, the overwhelming of hospital facilities or the human cost, among other predicaments, despite measures adopted by health authorities. And yet persevering through it all, the tireless effort of the health professionals, civil servants, social workers, volunteers and many other sectors – spanning the full three years but unflagging during the past weeks’ mass infections – deserves our deepest admiration and gratitude. The same goes for the countless people and businesses that have endured hardship during this period.

At this stage, a number of questions loom large. Did it really need to be like this? Were local authorities caught off-guard by the policy shift? Couldn’t and shouldn’t this have been done last summer? What was the rationale behind continuing to adhere to all those harsh restrictions and lockdowns, when other countries around the world including neighbours in the region had moved past? Was there a scientific justification? Shouldn’t there have been a more open environment for sensible and well-informed views to be effectively considered allowing for a policy shift at an earlier stage? What about all the financial resources allocated to mass testing, to the management of strict pandemic controls, isolation and lockdowns – certainly important and necessary early on, of course, but in many ways highly questionable over the past year?

These and other questions remain in many people’s minds. And while they won’t stop us gladly moving forward post-pandemic, they are issues that deserve consideration, and lessons should be learned.

Now that the reopening has been set irreversibly in motion, confidence is returning and the road to recovery lies ahead. Though it won’t be without some bumps along the way, as business representatives predict in this issue of Macau Business.

The return of mass tourism from mainland China is essential for reviving the economy. Other supportive measures from Central Government are in the pipeline, and the SAR is set to ride a nation-wide wave of reopening. This is already coming to fruition.

On the other hand, Macau’s reopening to overseas destinations will take more time to yield results, given that international air routes can’t be expected to reconfigure and relaunch overnight. Devising an effective strategy for attracting international visitation will also be key. Local tourism authorities will play a pivotal role in this respect, having indicated as early as last November that overseas promotion is on their agenda for 2023.

Reopening is not just about the return of quarantine-free travel (though that is an absolutely necessary condition). It must be embraced as an attitude, at the heart of public policy and by private players: reopening to visitors who, if welcomed and treated to quality service, will be our best word-of-mouth ambassadors with the message “Macau is back”; reopening to the investment and the professionals from abroad, lost by the city during COVID; reopening and attracting new talent. In sum, reopening in a holistic way.

It’s an endeavour that can benefit greatly from the gaming firms that ushered in their new ten-year concessions along with the New Year. The operators’ new strategies and plans, announced in line with government guidelines and new gaming tender terms, bode well for the SAR’s development. In the right conditions and a suitable environment – predicated on a sustained bounce back of casino revenue– the deep involvement of gaming and integrated resort companies in a combined MOP108.7 billion in investments in MICE, business tourism and entertainment, in the promotion of Macau to international customers overseas, in gastronomy, culture and support for SMEs and innovation, among other fields, can pave the way for an effective upgrade and the promised transformation of the city into a world tourism and leisure hub.

Wishful thinking? Time will tell, but we have seen Macau bounce back from crises and shine, time and again. We look forward to witnessing that once more.

In rising to this challenge, at this juncture, there is little, if any, room to fail. It’s time to roll up the sleeves and get this right.

Happy New Year (2023). Happy Chinese New Year of the Rabbit!