Bali. Dive tour operators from around the world agreed that they need to focus on their domestic markets as travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic have caused a downturn in the business like never before.
They convened in a video conference hosted by the Indonesian Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry from the resort island of Bali earlier this week to share insights into the best possible way to survive in the business and preparations for when global travels resume.
“We hope all of us can bring new insights from this webinar, we need to prove that we are going to win this battle with clear picture and strategic plan what the future tourism will be after the pandemic ends,” Deputy Tourism Minister Rizki Handayani told the conference.
Ten speakers from seven countries and various dive organizations joined the Monday’s teleconference, in addition to tens of local dive tour operators who followed from the venue at a Bali hotel.
Paul Tosh Tanner, a representative from international scuba diver training organization PADI, vowed to continue helping Indonesia with the global promotion despite the ongoing pandemic.
“We are in a very lucky situation to be in Indonesia, to have these resources and to be able to promote diving,” Tanner, who was present at the meeting venue in Bali, told the audience of mostly local dive tour operators.
He said Indonesia has among the world's most beautiful dive spots and thousands more haven't been discovered yet.
All over the years, safety has always become the biggest concern in the business and that's clearly evident during the current health crisis.
“Over the last 40 years we've had volcanoes, we've had earthquakes and we've had tsunamis. We look into diving industry in the 1980s and we had a huge challenge with the diving industry all because of this shark. We had to market diving that if you go for it you're not bitten by sharks, not if you're lucky you will see shark,” he said.
“We need to concentrate on the safe factor. Make sure you're following the health protocols and make sure that you are advertising that this is happening.”
Brian Miller, the founder of Colorado-based One World Dive and Travel, had to stay awake until just after midnight in his country to address the conference.
He suggested that dive operators prepare themselves for resumption of global travels rather than expect unlikely international arrivals at the time being.
He cited results from an internal research indicating that American divers won’t travel to Indonesia or any other distant countries until there is a cure of the virus.
“Our research has shown three categories of divers --basically about 10 percent of our divers are reluctant to travel until there is an available vaccine, 30 percent are willing to travel but only within a six-hour flight window from home,” Miller said.
“And 60 percent travelers are ready to travel worldwide. These divers understand that Covid is not going away, that we have to learn to live with it and that vaccine is going to be at least a year away before it’s widely available.”
For many American divers, Indonesia will continue to become their favorite destination, primarily famous marine resorts such as Bali, Komodo Island, Alor and Raja Ampat, he said.
Maik Solf from Germany detailed reasons why dive operators should shift their focus to what next year will bring. He founded tour operator Aqua Venture in 2003 for diving holidays specializing in Indonesia since the beginning, and business was doing well until the virus struck.
Sales had been growing steadily from 47.2 million euros in 2015 to 55.2 million euros in 2019. Global restriction measures that mostly came into effect in April have caused sales to plunge to just 10 million euros this year, Solf said.
“For your information, about 80-85 percent of our revenues go to partners, with our Indonesian partners receiving the most,” he said.
Moreover, the number of guests to worldwide destinations, mostly Indonesia, also dropped sharply from 32,000 last year to 6,000.
It was a complicated issue for Aqua Venture because it’s a common practice that tour operators must pay their partners in advance, in this case including airlines, hotels, dive centers and field crew.
“If customers legally cancel a trip due to coronavirus, we have to repay 100 percent,” he said.
To make things worse, some partners didn’t allow rebooking to new dates.
“And some other partners raise prices after rebooking,” he said.
Business almost shuts entirely as 95 percent of destinations closed their borders, including Indonesia. While several countries still open door to tourists, like Egypt and Maldives, travelers received travel warning from their home countries, he said.
He shared the view from other speakers that the willingness to travel to Indonesia and the willingness to pay remain high among international divers. As the world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia also has abundant diving destinations and plenty more are waiting to be discovered.
Indonesian tour operators should make sure that health protocols are strictly applied and adopt specific measures such as the use of global tracking apps and arrange rapid diagnostic test for coronavirus at popular destinations, he said.
Chinese Divers Miss Indonesia
Priscilla Jiao Bei, the founder of Beijing Dive the World website, told the conference her country has an estimate of half a million divers, many have been to foreign countries.
“Before the pandemic, almost all of our bookings are overseas diving packages, especially Southeast Asia, including Indonesia,” she said.
Overseas recreational travels have stopped completely since April so the company started to promote dive sites inside China.
“Chinese divers took the time to learn new skill, not recreational because there is not much to see in China’s oceans,” she said.
A recent survey indicated that an overwhelming majority of Chinese divers are willing to travel in Indonesia once restrictions are lifted.
“If Indonesia reopens the market, the top four destinations they want to go are Raja Ampat, Komodo, Manado and Banda Sea,” she said.
“Only 0.3 percent don’t want to go to Indonesia, so the potential diving market in Indonesia is still very high. They are attracted to colorful reefs and marine animals.”
However, many Chinese may hesitate to travel abroad immediately after the pandemic.
“For Chinese divers they are a little bit concerned about anti-China reactions. They are worried that other countries blame China for starting this pandemic, that they will get attack or some kind of rude language,” Priscilla said.
She predicted that the global dive market will start to recover by the second half of next year at the soonest.