Spotlight: Hit hard in pandemic, service industries in Asia-Pacific countries explore new models for survival under "new normal"

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HONG KONG, July 4 (Xinhua) -- The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a heavy blow to service industries in Asia-Pacific countries, with sectors such as tourism, catering, retailing hit the hardest.

Apart from providing direct financial subsidies to help these sectors survive, governments in some countries have been proactively guiding their enterprises and labor forces on developing new business approaches and skill shifts to adapt to the "new normal" of this difficult time.


Song Chao, who runs two famous Chinese restaurant brands Xie Lao Song and Xiao Wei Yang in Singapore, is one of the entrepreneurs who responded actively to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's call in grasping the opportunities in the changes brought about by the pandemic.

During the Circuit Breaker, imposed by the government to contain the spread of the COVID-19 since April 7, his company closed several restaurants, leaving only one hot pot restaurant and one Chinese restaurant open for takeaways and deliveries.

His operating restaurants have mainly carried out delivery services through websites, WeChat and Star Taster delivery platforms, and personal social network of employees. On the other hand, these restaurants have also changed the variety of dishes to suit the demand for takeaways, including highlighting barbecue features and adding bao, a type of steamed, filled bun, to the menu. "Bao is popular and convenient when people are staying at home," he said.

Song said on the morning of May 1, his Chinese restaurant cooked 26 roast ducks and he himself went out to deliver food. He saw the Circuit Breaker measures changing Singaporeans' living habits, and even if it has ended on June 19, he believes the takeaway and delivery services would not shrink at least in a short term.

Singaporean government has been encouraging local businesses in their digital transformation, especially after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Enterprise Singapore (ESG) launched the E-Commerce Booster Package in April to support small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) retailers, who have little or no e-commerce experience, to start their business transformation by selling online. This package was expanded in May to support SME retailers in strengthening their digital marketing capabilities for e-commerce, providing a one-time 90 percent support for digital marketing advisory services for three months, and support for manpower to build in-house capabilities needed to set the foundation for sustained digital marketing efforts.

The E-Commerce Booster Package is in line with the "Stay Healthy, Go Digital" initiative to provide resources for businesses to manage the COVID-19 situation, and the SMEs Go Digital program to help SMEs strengthen their digital capabilities and access global markets via digital channels, according to the government agency.

In a speech on June 7, Prime Minister Lee said his country has been developing plans for the Future Economy, investing heavily to upgrade its workers through SkillsFuture, digitalizing both the private and public sectors, building its innovation and R&D capabilities.

"Nobody can predict what exactly the world will look like after COVID-19 but however things turn out, these Future Economy strategies will stand us in good stead," Lee Hsien Loong said. "We need to pursue them even more vigorously now."


"Without any cash or work, how will I survive? That was my first thought after reaching my village," said Ram Kewat, a 60-year-old daily wage laborer who used to work in Delhi.

It was a journey of 450 km from the capital to his village on the outskirts of Jhansi, one of Uttar Pradesh's southernmost districts. Kewat covered that distance on foot in just five days, walking 90 km a day on an average to reach his village on March 29.

After the government announced a three-week nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on March 24, Kewat knew he would be out of work and food, and decided to walk to his village since there was no other mode of commute.

Ram Kewat is only one of the about 100 million migrant workers in India, or 20 percent of the country's total workforce, who have lost their livelihood during the lockdown. Mostly daily wage earners such as security guards, delivery persons, cleaners, and garbage collectors have no other choice but to return home now that their workplaces have shut down.

But there is hope for Kewat to earn a better living even in his hometown. On June 20, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the "Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan" (GKRA or Poor Welfare Employment Campaign) worth 50,000 crore Indian Rupees (6.7 billion U.S. dollars), a rural job plan for the welfare of migrant laborers who had returned home from major cities, covering 116 districts including Kewat's hometown of Uttar Pradesh.

A list of 25 works and activities, such as construction of highways, village council buildings and farm ponds, Internet set up, laying of gas pipelines, have been targeted as priority projects to ensure employment for these migrant laborers.

Modi said under the campaign, skill mapping of the rural migrant laborers is being done to help them work closer to their homes, focusing on building a durable rural infrastructure and providing modern facilities like Internet in the villages.


For highly international cities like Bangkok, tourism hotspot like Pattaya and Phuket, the economic devastation is nearly total as Thailand has received zero international guests because of restrictions on inbound flights from April to June, or even longer.

"The tourism sector of Thailand is in the plight of oversupply due to the absence of foreign tourists. To make it survive and fill the void of the foreign market, the cabinet has approved stimulus packages worth 22.4 billion bah (716.8 million U.S. dollars) to stimulate about two million domestic trips from July to October," Yuthasak Supaporn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told Xinhua.

The packages include subsidies on accommodation, transport, food and attractions. Domestic travellers stand to receive a subsidy amounting to 20 billion baht, including a 40 percent discount on 5 million hotel room nights, up to a value of 3,000 baht a night, as well as up to 3,000 baht on meals and other amenities. The government will also discount air or bus tickets by 40 percent, up to a limit of 1,000 baht.

"In the past we offered Thai people cash giveaways, as a result, they saved the money instead of spending in trips. This time we'd rather give them discount coupons, to stimulate spending," said the governor.

Besides, a package worth 2.4 billion baht will fund holiday travel for 1.2 million health volunteers and officials who will use services of tour firms, which is expected to help 13,000 tour firms.

"All the measures are aimed to reinvigorate the domestic tourism, to get the economy move again", said Yuthatsak.

The country is also mulling reopening its door to international tourists through travel bubbles. Taweesin Wisanuyothin, spokesman for the government's Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration, said the travel bubble idea had not been finalized but it was clear it would not allow hundreds of thousands of foreigners to pay visits per year.

"Tourism sector will be reset in the pandemic. We are turning away from mass tourism. Targeting wealthy groups, balancing the domestic and international markets will be the trend," he said.


Like Singapore's Song Chao, many young entrepreneurs have quickly adapted to the new situation and found their taste of achievement in becoming cloud servers.

Malaysia's Angie Ng runs a company with businesses spanning from property development to tourism. She is also the president of Malaysia Inbound Chinese Association, a major industry player in receiving Chinese tourists to Malaysia.

After business slowed down and tourism came to a halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Ng soon found a new way to promote Malaysia's tourism, live streaming.

Since April, she has done a number of episodes as a host on Malaysia's tourists' attractions, including urban food streets, rural durian farms, introducing Malaysia's culture on China's social media platforms like TikTok, Wechat.

Ng said she was inspired when being asked by her friends in China about the pandemic in Malaysia and if it would be safe to come to Malaysia for holiday.

"I have time now, so I must do something to prevent Malaysia's tourism market to cool down," she said. "Live streaming is the best way I can think of, people could actually see the food and the streets."

Ng's viewers have grown from several thousand in the earlier episodes to more than 10,000 now. "Doing live-streaming brings me some sense of satisfaction. When you have 10,000 viewers, you would want to have more, to introduce more fun staff and places to my Chinese friends," she said.

Ng is planning more live streaming of some tropical islands and historic cities of Penang and Malacca, among others. "We want to keep warm the market and not to let the market cool down and hopefully when all these borders reopen, all the tourists will come back," she said.

Like Ng, Nishith Shah, who founded India China Academy (ICA) in Mumbai in 2013 to bridge the cultural gap between India and China, has also enjoyed his new way of doing businesses after moving his Mandarine language courses online.

"We have re-strategized our teaching methods and tools according to new situation. Despite the physical distance we are able to create the same fun learning environment as we used to have during our classroom sessions. We have designed exercises, activities and learning material to suit online teaching. We are using various digital platforms like zoom platform for teaching, Wechat for discussions and DingTalk for attendance."

He even found his courses now covering a wider participants. Earlier his students mainly came from Mumbai. In a webinar on "Introduction to Mandarin" he was "pleasantly surprised" to see students coming from Kolkata, Surat, Delhi and remote parts of Maharashtra.

"A wider range of students can now access ICA's educational programs," said Shah, devoted to connecting China and India by eliminating communication and cultural barriers of the two ancient civilizations. (1 baht equals 0.032 U.S. dollars) Enditem

(Xinhua reporters Li Xiaoyu from Singapore, Zhang Xingjun from Mumbai, Chen Jiabao from Bangkok, Lin Hao from Kuala Lumpur contributed to the story.)

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