“It’s a time to rethink the tourism industry as a whole”

From the peak to the valley. After reaching a record high of nearly 40 million visitors last year, the city’s tourism industry has been feeling an unprecedented pinch due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Macau Government Tourism Office (MGTO) launched “Macau Ready Go,” a campaign initially planned for returning visitors that had to be adjusted to cater to local residents. MGTO Director Helena de Senna Fernandes suggests the industry needs to undergo a soul-searching to find a way forward in the yet-to-be-known post-COVID-19 new normal. At this juncture, there’s no way to predict visitation figures for the coming months, as uncertainty looms. The silver lining is that the city sits next to a massive source market, and Ms. Fernandes anticipates a gradual opening to tourists beyond Guangdong province to include Fujian and Hunan. 

Interview | By José Carlos Matias and Nelson Moura  

Photos by Cheong Kam Ka

Just recently we had the new border-crossing arrangements. How much of a light at the end of the tunnel is that, and where do we go from here? 

Helena de Senna Fernandes: I’m sure this new measure, the relaxation of border measures, would help restore confidence – particularly in the tourism industry. It will also give them hope.  

The government has been giving some subsidies – we have been running some programs in order to bring people to spend money, but the issue is that without new visitation, without outside people coming in, it’s very difficult in the long run because we do depend very much on tourism in order to sustain many different businesses in Macau. The new border arrangements are very positive, but I would say that after such a big pandemic, its still a slow recovery.  

We can’t expect that tomorrow, millions of tourists would come, and that would not happen because on the one hand, people would still have that little bit of fear of travelling, so we need time to overcome that. Then also according to the new measures, in order to cross the border you have to have your tests done, so that would still need some time for people to get used to, and to get used to travelling again.  

They will not come by the millions surely. In any case, is there a realistic visitation figure for the whole year?  

H. S. F. : Well, its very difficult to do any projections at this juncture because, for one, we have stopped for quite some months, ever since towards end of January basically, tourism has come very much to a standstill. And we have had very few tourist visitors coming into Macau for a prolonged period of time. We have seen numbers as low as 200 visitors a day, sometimes maybe a couple hundreds more. On a good day, maybe we had a little bit over 1000 visitors.  

We can’t expect the visitor numbers to be growing very quickly. Because one, you would be very much conditioned by how many people can actually get their tests done, because that is a prerequisite in terms of crossing the border, and then secondly, with people having gone through such a serious pandemic, they would also think twice about where should I go. We need to give them confidence that Macau, well – when we say Macau is ready – Macau is also a safe place for people to come to, because we have a responsibility towards our own residents, and we also have a responsibility for the visitors coming in. So that they feel safe, and our local residents also feel safe.  

You mentioned the impact the pandemic had on the local industries, obviously travel agencies, tour guides, and bus drivers. How have those efforts panned out so far, and what kind of concerns the sector has expressed to the government, in terms of how they can be assisted in this time?  

H. S. F. : To be honest, when we conceived the idea of Macau Ready Go, the initial idea was for visitors, because we started with the Macau Ready Go platform. Why did we choose Macau Ready Go? We would like to convey the message that Macau was ready to restart again, and I would say ready to retake the receiving of visitors again. So that was the whole idea behind why we used the tagline Macau Ready Go. We want to show that Macau has all the conditions, that we have everything in place, that we have a very safe environment. We also have very good facilities, and we want to make sure that people know about that.  

So, that’s why the focus then shifted a little bit to what we call Staycation – Staying at home and having a vacation. So that’s why the entire focus shifted to Staycation programs, meaning to say we want to lure our own people, our local residents to tour around so that there is movement, and with those movements also come business, particularly for the SME’s. 

“It’s time to rethink the entire tourism industry as a whole” 

“{Tourism visitation} will restart at a very slow pace at this point in time” 

How do you assess the results so far?  

H. S. F.: I would say very promising. Travel agencies in Macau have never served local residents, in terms of touring around Macau. Or, they might have served (locals) but in a very limited way.  

Many suppliers have opened new facilities for people to go to, say for example: we have never thought of bringing people to go to see Air Macau’s operation center. We have never thought of bringing people to go to see for example: the electricity company, the back of the house programs for a lot of the big concessionaires. There’s a lot of interesting work that I believe finally has finally paid off.  

But realistically speaking, obviously the local sector can’t survive on local residents for the future. Are you worried about the impact to the sector in general, let’s say next year, if the numbers of tourists continue to be reduced? 

H. S. F.: I think that in a way, it is also time to rethink the entire tourism industry as a whole. I think tourists will still continue to come, but it will restart at a very slow pace at this point in time, because obviously, there are no vaccines yet, so international travel has stopped for a long while. The airplanes are not flying very regularly nowadays; there are a lot of border controls in different parts of the world, so there is actually still some time until we actually can resume travelling. Besides that, insurance considerations are also another for international travel, because if insurance companies are not giving – or are not covering them in terms of travelling – it is very difficult for people to decide on travelling internationally.  

So there are many considerations still that we need to overcome. But I think that for us, we have the big advantage due to the proximity we have with one of the biggest markets of the world in terms of tourism, and that is Mainland China. So with Mainland China gradually opening up, I think we would get very good results. I don’t think it would be as many as before, and probably it would give us some breathing space to restart at a good but gradual pace. Also, it would give us the opportunity to rethink our entire strategy, so there is always a silver lining in any situation. We have to learn from what we call, the new normal, we have to re-program ourselves, and I guess we have to also send out new messages to the world.  

You mentioned that our geographic location gives us a sort of competitive advantage in the way for the recovery. Regarding the Greater Bay Area – putting HK aside for now – how much of a reciprocity do you anticipate in terms of the flow of visitors?  

H. S. F.: Guangdong is a very important market, in terms of the number of visitors coming in to Macau. Last year, if we look at the numbers, last year we had about 22 million from the mainland, and about 42%, if I’m not mistaken, actually come from Guangdong province. Many of the people from Guangdong province, particularly those who live just across the border from us – Zhuhai or Zhongshan, I think Macau for them, is a good getaway, where they can buy supplies, to buy daily stuff as well, so it is not just for a tourism environment, they are also coming here to get what they need. So Guangdong is also a very important part of this tourism mix, so to speak.  

It is very difficult to have number projections for the time being, because we don’t know how or when the individual visitation scheme would resume, because obviously, some people may still hold valid visitation permits. But a lot or most of them have expired, or the new registrations or new application are not in place yet. So I think for this month at least, we have to take it slowly for the time being. And besides the permits being granted, they would also need to do the nucleic tests, which is also an issue because the availability for the tests are not infinite.  

Macau is not considered to be in the interprovincial group of possibilities. So we still need the next step, but we hope eventually to have some possibilities to get some tourist visitation, from then onwards it can grow again, and not limited to the very small numbers that are crossing.  

This crisis, you mentioned, also offers opportunities for soul searching, with regards to the future of Macau’s tourism industry and the city’s rebranding. Can you tell us a bit what has been discussed what has been brainstormed here in these sessions?  

H. S. F.: I think one of the things we actually discussed internally, is how would tourism be different from now on. One of the answers, or the ideas, definitely is that we would need to work very closely with the health authorities from now onwards. For example, if we wanted to establish a travel bubble, its not because the tourism authorities feel good about it, or the tourism department feels that this would work. Definitely, we need to work with health authorities on the outbound and receiving end. They would have a very big say as to who are able come, who are not able to travel to a certain place, the travel conditions for them. So, going forward, working with health authorities is a must.  

There is a lot of confidence building that we need to do for our residents as well, so the messages have to be crafted in a way to say how safe we are, not only that but, showing them what exactly has been done to safeguard their interests, besides giving them good experiences and services. This is something we need to learn as well.  

“With Mainland China gradually opening up I think we would get very good results” 

“It is very difficult to have number projections for the time being” 

Talking about business tourism and events, what can we expect in this rest of the year? 

H. S. F.: In terms of the events, speaking about MGTO, obviously we have the travel fair, which was supposed to be held in April, but we moved that to September. We still have the Global Tourism Economy Forum, which will also need to be shifted a little later in the year. But we have hopes that we would still hold it this year.  

For ourselves, we are not able to run the fireworks festival this year. We have decided to go ahead with the light festival, which is now announced to start on the 26 of September, and run until the end of October. We decided that there needs to be something for an earlier time, to try to boost everybody’s spirits, so the light festival has always been a very anticipated event.  

For the National Day, obviously we will have a fireworks event, and we are looking forward to working together with Hengqin, in terms of a combination of drones as well as fireworks. Although we can’t run the fireworks contest, we still would have some fireworks, some special events for our residents and eventually our visitors.  

We will also run the film festival. But it will have to be probably a combination of physical film watching and also maybe, I wouldn’t say virtual, but a online segment in terms of the competition sections. Because we understand not everybody in the world would be able to come. 

As air travel to and from Macau is very limited, with which countries and regions are the tourism and health authorities are trying to negotiate the reestablishing routes?  

H. S. F.: I would be very conservative in that, in these kinds of pandemics, we need to be more on the safe side. For the rest of the year, I would only be looking very much within our immediate vicinity. Meaning to say, Guangdong definitely, hopefully we can have a little further afield in the mainland, traditionally, besides Guangdong, our next market would be Fujian, would be places like Hunan – because of the rapid rail system. Then, we would definitely see HK be back in the scheme as well, because HK is, in terms of numbers, the second most important market apart from the mainland. Another one is Taiwan, who seems to have very good control over the pandemic.  

At this point it’s still not possible because of the travel restrictions, but hopefully, before the end of the year, we hope to see some form of development. With regards to other countries it’s very difficult to guess at this point in time.  

Obviously MGTO encountered unexpected situations this year. How challenging the past months were to undergo these tasks? 

H. S. F.: I think the last few months, starting January, we were into a phase of almost daily or hourly rapid response. Because things are happening all the time, the situation changing from moment to moment. It was really a test of how quickly we can respond and how we can actually put together resources to tackle each task in a short period of time. We have learnt a lot, to be honest. Although we have the Tourism Crisis Management Office, we never would have thought or imagined we would have to do, for example repatriation of residents by vehicle, plane, or by ferry.  

It was a steep learning curve, everybody had to learn to react very quickly, think out of the box, so as to invent ways to try to solve different situations. I must admit that we cannot serve everybody, and also we cannot find solutions for 100% of tasks. Sometimes it is not a perfect solution, more or less not the perfect way, but we have to make do with the limitations we are facing. The last few months have really been a big test for everybody, not just us, but also our partners in the immigration services, including health, including the ferry companies, travel agencies, everybody.  

“Besides Guangdong, our next market would be Fujian, and places like Hunan – because of the rapid rail system” 

 “The last few months have really been a big test for everybody” 

In the meantime, MGTO is undergoing a transition of the Secretary for Social affairs and Culture to Economy and Finance. Where are we now in terms of that transition? 

H. S. F.: I can say we are very close in terms of moving to the Economy and Finance portfolio. Doesn’t’ mean once we have moved there we don’t work on the culture side, the other side. We do, we will still continue to work together with a lot of our partners. Because tourism entails many aspects, culture definitely is a very important tourism asset, the big events, sports events, also important for us. Besides that, we also worked together with the education departments, and other departments. We still have a lot of synergy together continuing into the future.  

This transition does hint as a somewhat more business oriented approach to tourism. In terms of your mission would there be any sort of adjustment? 

H. S. F.: I think the adjustment would come in terms of the income generating area. I guess there will be a little bit more focus there. But adding the focus there doesn’t mean diminishing the others. I would say for us, for sure, tourism for Macau definitely, is an important economic activity, so we need to make sure people understand that. We also need to work harder, especially after this pandemic, in order to get more income back into Macau. 

We are commemorating 15 years on the listing of Macau’s Historic Centre as UNESCO. Some voices have expressed concerns on the impact of urban development on the city’s heritage protection. How much does it concern you that heritage in Macau is being impacted?  

H. S. F.: Heritage is very important for us in terms of our entire promotion. It’s not just because having Macau listed on UNESCO that we started working on promoting culture. We have actually even in the 1990s, we have always used culture as part of the promotion messages. Heritage and culture is not limited to just buildings. It is also in the environment itself, in the way we eat, the things we eat, the food culture, the way of life of people. It has always been a very important aspect in the ways we promote, if we look at our travel guides, our promotional messages that we have done, on social media, or traditional media. We always put an angle of culture in it. It has become hand in hand with tourism, we wouldn’t imagine promoting Macau in terms of tourism without the cultural aspects. It has always been and will continue be a part of the tourism message. 

You have been at working at MGTO for over three decades and have been serving as director since December 2012. The current term ends come December. What are your future plans? Will you continue as MGTO director? 

H. S. F.: It’s not me to decide that; my boss decides whether I continue or not. Well I would say over these three decades, it has been a very interesting job. To be honest, when I joined MGTO, I would not have imagined civil service to be like this. When we look at civil service, people say it’s very slow, bureaucratic, that was the kind of image of civil service when I joined some 30 years ago. For me it was a learning experience. I have had very good role models to follow. I have been working with Costa Antunes {previous director} for a long time; he’s a very good teacher. And also other colleagues of mine, my past department heads, our Deputy Directors, they have also taught me a lot. Also I’ve learnt a lot from other government departments, which we have worked with very closely.  

So everyday there’s something new, you learn something different. It’s just keeping our eyes open, our minds open, so that we can try to see something different everyday, to try to accumulate this experience for ourselves.  

So are you eager, willing to continue? How do you regard your career as a civil servant?  

MHSF: Very difficult to say, I would always say that we do our part, but the one up there would decide. I do make some plans for myself but they are not set in stone. Plans do change. Then – personally, I’m a Catholic, so I always keep a very very open attitude that – someone would always tell me exactly where he would want me to be.