BOAO – The tables featured plastic screens between diners, hand sanitisers were ubiquitous at every session – even the gift bag contained half a dozen surgical masks.
For a conference meant to show that China was once again open for business – last year’s edition was cancelled by the pandemic – Covid-19 weighed heavily on the Boao Forum.
Boao is a sleepy fishing town, usually visited by few tourists, that truly comes alive once a year. Most of its modern infrastructure – hotels, golf courses and an imposing waterfront conference centre – is purpose-built for the annual forum.
This year, however, even the forum was a somewhat muted affair.
China’s borders are still largely shut to foreign visitors and even those who get approval to enter face a daunting two-week minimum quarantine.
Most – if not all – foreign delegates who spoke at the forum, including representatives from Singapore like head of the CPF board Augustin Lee, Professor Kishore Mahbubani and former cabinet ministers George Yeo and Wong Kan Seng, delivered their remarks virtually.
This meant that socialising and networking, usually key features at international conferences, were kept to a minimum. Hard to make new contacts, when even meeting old ones was a challenge.
“It’s about having shared experiences and meeting with new people, yet the people we see here are the same we’ve been meeting again and again in the last year,” said a delegate from a financial firm.
“If borders are still closed next year, our company might consider giving (the forum) a miss because while it’s nice to be out of the office, you hardly get anything out of it,” he added.
Sponsors could only host receptions that were limited in size because of virus control measures, while informal dinner meetings had also been hampered by sessions which ran into the night – a bid to accommodate speakers in different time zones.
A walk through the town – a collection of low-rise buildings and historic architecture similar to Singapore’s shophouses – and the impact of the pandemic is far more keenly felt.
Shopfronts usually teeming with delegates from out of town are empty; on a stretch of popular seaside restaurants, at least two bars are shuttered; and one of the town’s most popular beachside restaurants is just over half full, though this is a conference evening.
At a music bar next door, bored wait staff are standing around empty tables.
“We usually work in Haikou, but the owner said there was a big meeting here so we were needed, that’s why we’re all here,” said a waitress surnamed Wang, who along with three of her colleagues came to Boao for forum week.
“But it looks like there are far fewer diners than the previous time I was here,” she added.
A global vaccination drive is now underway to ensure that borders can safely and sustainably reopen. China also has an ambitious target of vaccinating 40 per cent of its population by the end of June.
But around the world, developed countries have a far higher vaccination rate compared to developing nations.
Should this continue, it will certainly pose a challenge for the economies of purpose-built MICE towns like Boao.