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Pandemic delivers first crisis lessons to Southeast Asia’s Grab

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SINGAPORE (Reuters) – In the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, Anthony Tan, the CEO of Southeast Asia’s biggest ride-hailing firm, recalls how he mistook the infection to be a China-only problem, similar to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2003.

As COVID-19 turned into a pandemic, sending markets into a tailspin, the 38-year-old sought advice from titans among his investors including Softbank’s Masayoshi Son and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella.

The message was clear. No one knew how long the crisis would last or how deep it would be. Tan, who co-founded Grab in 2012 with fellow Harvard Business School alumni Tan Hooi Lin, learnt he had to set thresholds and make decisive moves, even if they were unpopular.

“There’s no more debate, it’s just execution,” he said.

In June, the Singapore-based company laid off around 360 employees, just under 5% of its headcount, after slashing discretionary spending.

“I remember tears couldn’t stop rolling down my face. I don’t ever want to go through it again,” Tan said in his first interview since the layoffs.

The pandemic is the first crisis for Southeast Asia’s decade-old start-up ecosystem from which Grab has emerged a household name and the most valuable firm at over $14 billion.

Grab says its app has seen a total of 198 million downloads, although it has yet to turn profitable.

Operating in 351 cities across eight Southeast Asian countries, the company garnered global attention in 2018 when Uber (UBER.N) sold its regional business to the startup after a costly five-year battle. In return, Uber got a stake in Grab.

As coronavirus measures put the region of 650 million people under lockdown, Grab saw demand eroding for its transport business, but then nearly 150,000 of its drivers switched to becoming delivery men for home-bound customers.

“Food delivery has become the norm, grocery delivery is growing very fast, cashless payments is growing very fast, so these behaviours have changed permanently with or without a vaccine and we’ve been beneficiaries,” said Tan, who is preparing Grab for a future in which its users will at least partially work from home.

“You couldn’t ask for a better hedge,” Tan said in the living room of his Singapore penthouse, where he often spends 15 hours a day at his standing desk, sometimes exercising with dumbbells.

Delivering financial services

The company, which counts Indonesia as its biggest market and is locked in a fierce competition there with Jakarta-based Gojek, is doubling down on deliveries, with its two-year-old food business overtaking the mature transport division as its biggest segment.

It has had to scale back plans for its travel and hospitality service verticals as consumers stayed at home, but its finance business has been boosted by surging digital payments and small businesses seeking working capital loans. The financial services business includes wealth management, insurance and lending.

Backed by the likes of China’s Didi Chuxing and Japan’s MUFG, Grab was already transforming itself into an universal everyday app but the pandemic accelerated the plans, including providing more services for merchants.

The company, which says it has more than 9 million drivers, merchants and agents, is also awaiting the result of its application for an online banking licence in Singapore.

While the pandemic initially led to short-term thinking in a fight for survival, Tan said working from home for months and consultations with leaders from around the world has made him reflect and think longer term.

By “also just being insane and microscopic about costs”, Grab was now on a faster path to profitability, Tan said, without giving a time-frame.

Jixun Foo, managing partner at GGV Capital and an early backer of Grab, said speed was key.

“In good times, everybody is grabbing market share. When the tide turns, the best companies respond the fastest, they correct the fastest in terms of their business,” he said.

Reporting and photo: Reuters

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Maldives celebrates arrival of 2024’s 1 millionth tourist

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Maldives on Thursday welcomed the one millionth tourist to visit this year.

The one millionth tourist is a Thai named Sutapa Amonwivat, who arrived from Singapore with her husband and two children. This is her second visit to Maldives.

Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) and the Ministry of Tourism gave a warm welcome to Sutapa at the Velana International Airport (VIA) Thursday afternoon. She was welcomed at the VIA by tourism minister Ibrahim Faisal, MMPRC Managing Director Ibrahim Shiury and senior officials of various relevant agencies.

After welcoming her with traditional offerings, she was presented with various gifts by the ministry, MMPRC, customs, immigration, Maldives Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators (MATATO) and Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA).

Maldives reached one million tourists in June, three weeks earlier than last year. The number of tourists reached one million on July 16, 2023.

Maldives expects to reach 2 million tourists this year.

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New air route connects Chongqing to Maldives

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Chongqing Airlines on Monday began its inaugural flights to Maldives.

The Chongqing-Male route, scheduled three times a week, is expected to strengthen the bonds between China and the Maldives, opening up exciting new opportunities for tourism and cultural exchange.

The inaugural flight was welcomed upon its arrival at Velana International Airport (VIA) in Maldives, where local officials and tourism representatives expressed their enthusiasm for this new development.

“We warmly welcome our friends from China to our beautiful islands. This new connection strengthens our bonds and opens up new opportunities for tourism,” the tourism ministry said on X.

Maldives currently welcomes four airlines from China, including China Eastern, Beijing Capital Airlines, Xiamen Airlines.

In January, Maldives government urged tourism stakeholders in both Maldives and China to ramp up efforts to restore China’s position as the primary source market for Maldives tourism, a status held before the onset of Covid-19.

China, being the largest source market for Maldives tourism before the pandemic, saw a resumption of tourist arrivals from January 2023 after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. In 2023, the Maldives welcomed 187,118 Chinese tourists, marking a significant recovery in numbers. This year, the Maldives has welcomed the most number of tourists from China, with over 107,940 or 11.5 percent of total arrivals by June 12. 

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CROSSROADS Maldives Introduces Weixin Pay at resorts for seamless guest experience

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CROSSROADS Maldives has introduced WeChat Pay, widely known as Weixin Pay in China, across its world-class resorts, SAii Lagoon Maldives, Curio Collection by Hilton, and Hard Rock Hotel Maldives. This payment option is made available to enhance the convenience and overall experience for guests from China, making their stay in the Maldives more enjoyable and hassle-free.

Understanding the needs of the diverse guests, CROSSROADS Maldives has integrated WeChat Pay into operations, allowing guests from China to easily and securely conduct transactions using a payment method familiar to them. The introduction of WeChat Pay is a testament to CROSSROADS Maldives’ dedication to enhancing guest satisfaction by offering exceptional experiences at every turn. What is also expected through this initiative is that the guests could benefit from better foreign exchange rates, translating to better savings on their expenditures during their stay.

The option is available for guests in-house conveniently at both resorts as well as across the Marina at CROSSROADS Maldives where a wider variety of unparalleled dining and retail experiences are available for all guests. The day visitors from China will also therefore equally benefit from this new introduction at the Maldives’ premier multi-island integrated leisure destination.

SAii Lagoon Maldives, Curio Collection by Hilton, is a vibrant tropical escape that offers unique and locally inspired experiences. The resort features spacious rooms and villas, a variety of dining options, and an array of recreational activities designed to cater to the desires of modern travellers. Guests can escape to the island’s SAiisational natural beauty, enjoy water sports, and indulge in spa treatments, all while relishing the personalised service that defines Hilton’s Curio Collection.

Hard Rock Hotel Maldives brings the iconic Hard Rock spirit to the tranquil shores of the Maldives. This family-friendly resort offers a perfect blend of relaxation and entertainment, featuring music-inspired experiences, live performances, and the brand’s signature amenities. With luxurious accommodations, diverse dining options, and a plethora of activities for all ages, Hard Rock Hotel Maldives ensures an unforgettable holiday experience for every guest.

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