GENEVA - Behind its deep-red awnings, Richemont's blinds have been closed since July, after the coronavirus pandemic left the usually bustling five-star Geneva hotel starved for high-paying customers.
Now, after a "catastrophic" summer, other luxury lodgings in the Swiss city - which boasts the highest hotel density in the world - are struggling to avoid the same fate.
"We are in a profession that is truly in intensive care, and the condition is life-threatening," a stoney-faced Thierry Lavalley, who heads the Geneva hotel association and runs the five-star Fairmont Grand Hotel.
Before the pandemic hit, hotels in the city - a hub for diplomatic and international business activity - had been surfing on a wave of growth, with 3.2 million night stays annually for the past two years.
The sector was then struck by an "economic tsunami", Mr Lavalley said.
Switzerland, which has counted 50,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 1,800 deaths, dodged strict confinement measures seen in neighbouring countries.
But travel restrictions, event cancellations and months-long closures of restaurants and museums have taken a serious toll.
By the end of July, Geneva hotels had booked just 693,000 night stays and they expect no more than 1.3 million by the end of the year.
That level was last seen in 1954, when the city counted half as many hotels as it does today.
The hotel crisis is being felt across Europe, but the situation is particularly critical in Geneva, where the clientele is largely comprised of international business travellers and diplomats.
Individual clients coming for recreational tourism generally account for just a quarter of the total, Mr Adrien Genier, head of the Geneva Tourism, told reporters recently.
The remaining three-quarters are booked for people attending business congresses and seminars, or clients connected with large summits and meetings hosted by the United Nations and other international organisations.
But now, "there are no more congresses, no more business tourism, and the UN is barely moving. That makes Geneva the hardest-hit city in Switzerland", Mr Lavalley said.
During the first seven months of the year, Geneva hotels saw night stays shrink by 63 per cent compared with the same period last year, and the full-year number is expected to be 75 per cent lower, he said.
With its 126 hotels and 10,000 rooms, Mr Lavalley says Geneva has one of the world's highest hotel densities - a measure of the number of hotel rooms compared to the number of inhabitants.
If nothing is done to fix the situation, the sector "will be heavily impacted by closures and bankruptcies", Mr Lavalley said, warning that many more risked ending up like Richemont, which was forced to close after 145 years in business.
'BOTTOM OF THE PIT'
Meanwhile, neighbouring towns that usually profit from their proximity to Geneva are suffering as well.
In Lausanne, around 60 kilometres further down the shores of Lake Geneva, one establishment at least is preparing to close next month, Mr Stefano Brunetti-Imfeld, head of that city's hotel association told reporters.
Lausanne is home to more than 50 international sporting federations, as well as the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and it is suffering from a slowdown of its own.
"All of those people are staying home, not coming to work, are barred from travelling or from bringing people in," said Mr Brunetti-Imfeld, whose family has run the Hotel de La Paix in downtown Lausanne since 1954.
Amid this "completely unprecedented situation", hotel owners in Geneva and surrounding areas have pleaded with Switzerland's federal government and regional authorities to create a fund to help cover their losses and allow them to stay afloat until things turn around.
They have also urged authorities to seek a better balance between health and economic interests.
Each restriction and each limitation has an "immediate and devastating" impact on hotel stays, Mr Brunetti-Imfeld said, pointing for instance to Switzerland's recent decision to place much of France, including Paris, on its red list, requiring any travellers from there to quarantine.
Mr Lavalley meanwhile insisted that finding "middle-ground" between health and economic interests was needed "to allow us to climb up from the bottom of this pit".
ANTISANA VOLCANO, ECUADOR - On a rocky outcrop in an Ecuadoran nature reserve, a pair of prolific Andean condors are giving conservationists a glimmer of hope that the species, under threat from poisoning and hunting, could yet survive and thrive.
The massive Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), which calls the South American mountain range home, has a 3.5-metre wingspan, making it one of the largest flying birds.
"This couple of condors is the most impressive and most prolific pair we know of for this species," says biologist Sebastian Kohn, director of the Andean Condors Foundation, which works closely with Ecuador's Environment Ministry.
Researchers have been observing the pair in the Chakana private nature reserve, set on the slopes of the Antisana Volcano, for the past seven years.
"Since 2013, when we first started studying them, they have already had seven chicks," said Dr Kohn, whose team observes the birds with binoculars from a watchtower in the reserve, 50 kilometres south-east of Quito.
Normally, these long-lived monogamous birds reproduce slowly, a mating pair usually only producing a chick every two or three years.
Researchers say the likely reason for this pair's high reproduction rate is good access to food, especially carrion, and the feeling of security provided by being in the reserve.
But biologists are still concerned about the future of the species in Ecuador, and indeed throughout the mountain range.
Dr Kohn says Ecuador - where 150 individuals were identified for a 2018 census - should raise its "critical alert level" for the species.
Globally, there are some 6,700 condors, but numbers are declining. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the condor as "near threatened" on its watch list.
On another rocky outcrop in the reserve, at about 4,100 metres above sea level, is the main perch where about 40 of the birds have been spotted.
Dr Kohn said that over the last two years, "we have lost 15 to 20 individuals, mainly due to poisoning" linked to the consumption of contaminated carrion meant for livestock predators, in addition to hunting.
In September, one of the birds, which researchers had named Iguinaro, was found dead.
It had been released into the Chakana reserve only in May after being treated for gunshot wounds.
SINGAPORE - A woman whose initial 20-month jail term for maid abuse was cut to eight months last year had her sentence increased to 14 months by the Court of Appeal on Wednesday (Sept 23).
Suzanna Bong Sim Swan, 48, was found guilty of one charge of causing hurt to Ms Than Than Soe on May 17, 2015, by hitting the maid's left cheek repeatedly with a glass bottle containing medicated oil.
The court heard that Bong regularly assaulted the domestic worker from Myanmar - who was 27 when she started her employment in 2013 - and often punched the victim in the eye or face.
About 10 months after arriving in Singapore, the victim's eyesight began to deteriorate.
The victim called the police after Bong assaulted her with the glass bottle and was later found to be legally blind in her left eye.
In 2018, Bong was sentenced to 20 months' jail by a district court and ordered to pay compensation of $38,540.40 to the victim.
Bong appealed to the High Court, which reduced her sentence to eight months and the compensation sum to $1,000.
Justice Chua Lee Ming said then that there was no evidence that Bong's acts on May 17, 2015, caused the victim's injuries, which might have been caused by previous instances of abuse for which Bong was not charged.
The prosecution then brought the case to the Court of Appeal to determine questions of law that arose in the case.
In August, the Court of Appeal ruled that if there has been a sustained pattern of abuse, it would be wrong for a sentencing judge to disregard that fact and view the charge in isolation because that would give a false assessment of the suffering of the victim and of the offender's culpability.
On Wednesday, the apex court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and Tay Yong Kwang, increased Bong's jail term to 14 months.
She was granted a one-week deferment and was ordered to start serving her sentence on Sept 30.
Sentosa to require visitors to make online booking for entry to beaches during peak periods from Oct 17
SINGAPORE - Fun seekers heading to the beaches in Sentosa will now have to make bookings ahead of their visit to better facilitate Covid-19 safe management measures.
From Oct 17, people who want to visit the beaches during peak periods, including weekends and public holidays, will have to make reservations first.
The booking system will be trialled for an initial period of three months for Tanjong, Palawan and Siloso beaches, said Sentosa Development Corporation in a statement on Wednesday (Sept 23).
It added that crowds have been observed at these sites during peak periods.
The three beaches have also been segmented into a total of seven zones, each with a capacity limit of between 100 and 350 to allow for safe distancing.
Guests may pre-book their entry up to seven days before their intended beach visits, subject to capacity limits. For its initial roll-out, the reservation system will begin accepting bookings from Oct 10, for visits commencing Oct 17.
Bookings can be made at this website.
Guests may choose from two times lots to visit - the morning period (8am to 1pm), or afternoon (2pm to 7pm).
They may make reservations for up to five people in each booking and will receive an e-mail confirming their selected beach zone and time slot.
On the day of visit, guests should approach the beach entry kiosk of their selected zone, and present their confirmation e-mail for verification.
They will be issued wristbands for admission and may access the selected beach zone at any point during the reserved time slot.
Fifteen beach courts across Tanjong, Palawan and Siloso beaches will also be made available for booking for guests who wish to play court-based games such as beach volleyball.
In addition, "safety rings" have progressively been put in place on Sentosa's beaches, indicating spots where small groups of up to five may gather.
Groups should keep within the demarcated area and observe a minimum safe distance of 1m from other groups and guests.
Sentosa Development Corporation chief executive Thien Kwee Eng said: "The launch of a reservation-only beach entry during peak periods will help us ensure that Sentosa remains safe for all guests and staff as we welcome more guests back to our diverse and exciting array of leisure offerings.
"We also seek the cooperation of our guests to continue being socially responsible so that Sentosa continues to be a place where all visitors will have an enjoyable experience."
With the careful relaxation of travel restrictions and more green lanes allowing essential and business travel, Singapore is keeping a close eye on imported cases and making sure they do not leak into the community. Clara Chong looks at the different arrangements.
STRICT MEASURES IN PLACE FOR HARD-HIT PLACES
- In Europe, the number of new Covid-19 cases has been rising rapidly. For instance, France reported more than 10,000 new cases on Sunday while Britain reported almost 4,000 cases on the same day. Countries like Italy saw close to 1,000 new infections and Germany reported 1,345 new cases on Sunday as well.
- Given the severity of the pandemic in some countries, visitors from these places will have to serve a 14-day quarantine at dedicated government facilities and take a polymerase chain reaction swab test prior to the end of their quarantine period.
COUNTRIES WHICH HAVE BILATERAL GREEN LANE ARRANGEMENTS WITH SINGAPORE
1. Japan (from Sept 18)
The Business Track allows for safe resumption of cross-border travel and business exchanges, with necessary public health safeguards, such as testing before travellers leave, and after they arrive, and adhering to a controlled itinerary for the first 14 days on arrival.
2. China (from June 8)
Visitors from China - the first country to establish a green lane with Singapore - need not serve a quarantine of up to 14 days but must undergo Covid-19 swab tests. This applies to six provinces: Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The arrangement will be gradually expanded to other Chinese provinces and municipalities.
3. South Korea (from Sept 4)
Conditions include pre-departure and post-arrival testing, as well as the need to adhere to a controlled itinerary for the first 14 days after travellers' arrival.
4. Malaysia (from Aug 17)
Singapore opened its borders to Malaysia under two schemes - the Reciprocal Green Lane and the Periodic Commuting Arrangement.
The Reciprocal Green Lane facilitates cross-border travel for essential business and official purposes between both countries while the Periodic Commuting Arrangement allows Singapore and Malaysia residents who hold long-term immigration passes for business and work purposes in the other country to periodically return to their home countries for short-term home leave.
COUNTRIES WITH WHICH SINGAPORE HAS ALLOWED GENERAL TRAVEL
Brunei and New Zealand
- On Singapore's end, general travel to Brunei and New Zealand has been allowed from this month, though people here cannot travel to either country until restrictions are lifted there.
- Singapore is allowing visitors from these two countries, without the need for a 14-day stay-home period or quarantine if they had remained in the two countries for the past 14 consecutive days prior to their visit to Singapore, as the virus situation in those places is well under control.
- These visitors entering Singapore come under the Air Travel Pass Scheme, which allows for all forms of short-term travel, including leisure travel.
- Visitors from these two countries will have to take a swab test upon arrival and will be able to go about their activities after they get a negative test result. They will have to use the TraceTogether app for the duration of their stay here, among other conditions.
SINGAPORE IS HAVING DISCUSSIONS WITH PLACES INCLUDING:
Both countries said on Aug 25 that discussions will start on green lane arrangements to resume essential official and business travel.
Both countries have agreed to speed up discussions on setting up a reciprocal green lane, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Aug 26.
3. Hong Kong
The Singapore Consulate-General in Hong Kong said on Sept 10 that the Republic welcomes talks with Hong Kong on the gradual resumption of cross-border travel between the two sides.
LONDON - When the coronavirus swept across Europe this spring, overwhelming hospitals and killing thousands each day, few but the sickest patients could be tested, leaving health officials in the dark about how widely Covid-19 had spread.
Six months on, with the virus surging again, authorities can point to dramatically expanded testing capacity.
Britain alone carried out some 1.3 million tests in a recent week - a 20-fold increase from early April.
France and Spain, Covid hotspots, have likewise increased their capabilities.
The ramp-up is helping authorities identify thousands of infected individuals, a key step towards curbing the pathogen without resorting to economically devastating lockdowns.
But cracks are emerging.
The mass testing is straining labs, slowing results and complicating the contact tracing that's crucial to contain the virus. And many with the disease are ignoring rules on self-isolation.
"That warps everything," said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at Oxford University. "Testing is only useful if it's paired with rigorous contact tracing and isolation."
With infections rising and winter just around the corner, some public health advocates are sounding the alarm that the intense focus on testing is taking attention away from the other measures that are also necessary to fight the pandemic.
Without testing, health officials can't track or isolate the sick, nor fully understand important facets of the virus, such as its lethality.
In March, policymakers caught unprepared for the pandemic were unable to formulate a nimble response. The only way to bring the epidemic to heel was to impose mass lockdowns - to treat everyone as sick - which curbed infections but triggered the worst economic slump in living memory.
That's an outcome leaders across the region have pledged to avoid this time around, though their options are narrowing.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will convene crisis talks on tackling the resurgent virus on Tuesday, after his top scientific adviser warned the UK is on course for 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October without urgent action. He'll then make a statement to the House of Commons, laying out the next steps in his government's pandemic response.
As infections subsided over the summer, testing capacity kept growing, allowing authorities to target wider groups - including those returning from vacation or going back to schools or offices.
While the surge in testing identified plenty of mild and even asymptomatic cases, it also brought many laboratories to the limits of their capabilities.
In France, the government made tests free and widely available, recently ratcheting up the total to 1.2 million a week. That's led to "gridlock in access to tests, especially in some large cities where the virus circulates a lot," Health Minister Olivier Veran said at a press conference on Thursday.
Until recently, more than 99 per cent of tests were coming back negative in some nations - a far cry from positive rates of as much as half during the spring.
Nowhere has the turnabout been more pronounced - or the political heat more intense - than the UK, which lagged behind other European countries in testing early on but has now been doing more of it than any of its continental neighbours.
With labs unable to handle the volume, officials in some countries are again focusing testing on those who show symptoms or may have been exposed to the virus. While that approach is in line with World Health Organisation guidelines, it's reviving concern for some that tests are in short supply.
To improve tracing, France, Britain and other countries rolled out smart-phone apps designed to notify those who may have been exposed to the virus - but privacy concerns kept many from using them. And, as the number of Covid clusters increases, the job of those working the phones to track down the contacts of infected individuals grows more daunting each day.
Still, if tracers manage to reach some 50 per cent to 80 per cent of contacts - and if those people then adhere to rules on quarantining - those efforts could be enough to prevent another lockdown, estimated Annelies Wilder-Smith, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Heidelberg's Global Health Institute.
"We are morally and economically obligated not to give up," she said. "We owe it to our citizens."
Isolating the infected, especially those with a mild case, is another challenge. Only one in five people with Covid-19 symptoms in the U.K. is properly isolating at home, according to a recent report from a government advisory panel. Johnson's office said Sunday that those in England who refuse an order to self-isolate could be fined as much as £10,000 (S$17,465).
France recently loosened its mandatory period of self-isolation for the infected to seven days from 14 - betting that people will be more likely to obey if the period is shorter.
For its part, Germany has drawn praise during the pandemic for rolling out mass testing early on, imposing a relatively permissive lockdown in March and April and for putting together an effective army of contact tracers. Even so, its case numbers are rising again, heightening anxieties about the fall and winter.
In the German Alpine resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the limits of testing recently came into sharp relief. An American woman in her 20s spent several recent nights visiting bars. When showing symptoms a few days later, she was tested and told by officials to isolate, but continued to go out, according to local authorities. Health workers later found more than 30 new infections potentially linked to the woman. Prosecutors from Munich are investigating whether to bring charges.
"That's the whole story right there," Wilder-Smith said. "Isolation must be absolutely strict, you cannot have a mistake."
PRAGUE - Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis tapped a top epidemiologist as health minister on Monday (Sept 21) after the previous minister quit amid a spike in Covid-19 infections that has led to the country's total cases doubling within just three weeks.
The Czech Republic's spike in cases has been the second fastest in Europe on a rolling two-week basis after Spain when adjusted for population. On Monday, the total tally of cases grew past 50,000, up from 24,618 at the end of August.
The jump comes after the country - which was very quick to take strong measures to avoid mass spreading in the spring - loosened restrictions more than many others in the summer. It also comes just before regional elections less than two weeks away.
The surge has markets nervous, with the crown falling more than 1 per cent on Monday to a nearly four-month low of 27.225 to the euro amid worry new restrictions could come into play and hurt an economy recovering from a record 11 per cent year-on-year contraction in the second quarter.
In a televised address on Monday evening, Babis repeated the government did not want mass lockdowns like those in March that shut businesses, restaurants and schools. He urged people to stick to existing measures and wear face masks.
Babis picked Roman Prymula, who helped lead the central European country's response to the initial coronavirus outbreak, to replace Adam Vojtech, who quit on Monday after growing criticism.
"Professor Prymula will have crisis management as his main task," Babis said.
Prymula is widely seen as a straight talker, who once warned Czechs that travel could be disrupted for two years because of the novel coronavirus. He has said daily cases could swell to 6,000-8,000 from around 1,000-3,000 now.
Vojtech had been heavily criticised over the new wave of infections although some opposition politicians saw him as a scapegoat for the government, which critics say has been inconsistent in its response.
Debate is growing over whether the government should take steps allowing it to impose stricter measures if needed.
In the past 14 days, the Czech Republic has had 197 cases per 100,000 people, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, less than only Spain.
The 'R' number, which measures how many people are likely to be infected by one person carrying the virus, has hit 1.62.
The virus has killed 521 people in the country, rising 23% since Aug 31, while hospitalisations have almost tripled in that time. The government has said there were enough hospital beds and staff for now but unchecked spreading could stretch capacities.
SINGAPORE - Five Malaysian men will be spending weeks in jail for bringing 53,249 sachets of chewing tobacco into Singapore on Sept 7.
The sachets of chewing tobacco worth around $213,000 were uncovered in black polythene bags hidden in the bed bunks and engine compartments of Malaysia-registered bowser lorries by Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers at Tuas Checkpoint.
The Health Sciences Authority (HSA) said on Tuesday (Sept 22) that all five men had been instructed to go to designated carparks in Singapore to hand over the chewing tobacco to a contact person.
The Malaysian men, aged between 37 and 51, were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five to 16 weeks.
According to the HSA, the type of chewing tobacco the Malaysians brought in is known as Khaini tobacco - a composite of moist, dark brown tobacco leaf, mixed with slaked lime or spices.
The HSA reminded the public that the import, distribution, sale or offer for sale of emerging tobacco products are prohibited under the Tobacco (Control of Advertisements and Sale) Act.
Such products include shisha tobacco, smokeless tobacco, and chewing tobacco such as Gutkha, Khaini, Zarda, vaporisers and their constituents.
First-time offenders can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed for up to six months. For each count of the offence, repeat offenders can be fined up to $20,000 and jailed up to 12 months.
SINGAPORE - Yet another male tertiary student has ended up in court, this time for allegedly trespassing into hostel rooms at the National University of Singapore (NUS) to steal undergarments belonging to female occupants.
Pei Shao Bo, who was a student of NUS, was charged on Monday (Sept 21) with five counts of criminal trespass, four counts of theft and one count of being in possession of obscene films.
The 25-year-old Singaporean is said to have targeted the same room twice - on either Jan 14 or 16 to steal a bra, and on Jan 19 to remove three other undergarments.
Pei allegedly trespassed into another room on Jan 18 to steal underwear.
Between Feb 7 and 9, he is said to have entered a third room to steal a bra.
Pei is accused of trespassing into a fourth room on Feb 8 but court documents make no mention if any item was taken.
When asked, NUS would not say if Pei remains a student of the university, or if he has been suspended.
"NUS takes a strong stand against any form of misconduct. The university is unable to comment further as the case is now before the courts," a spokesman told The Straits Times on Monday evening.
The case comes in the wake of other tertiary students who were hauled to court for alleged offences committed on campus. They included students of NUS.
One of them, Korean Kim Dohyung, 22, is accused of assaulting a woman in a student housing unit on campus on March 21 last year.
Separately, Joel Rasis Ismail, 27, had pleaded guilty earlier this month to three charges of insulting a woman's modesty and one of criminal trespass.
The Singaporean has admitted to taking voyeuristic videos, including those of women using showers on campus last year.
The cases involving Joel and Kim are still pending.
Pei's bail was set at $15,000 and his case has been adjourned to Oct 12.
For each count of criminal trespass, an offender can be jailed for up to three months or fined up to $1,500.
And for each count of theft, an offender can be jailed for up to seven years and fined.
SINGAPORE - They may have been in a classroom about 23km from the Sultan Mosque, but that did not stop the pupils of Qihua Primary School from touring the iconic place of worship in Kampong Glam.
On Tuesday morning (Sept 22), the children went on a virtual excursion of the mosque from the comfort of their classroom in the school in Woodlands.
It is part of a trial by the National Heritage Board to tap technology so schools can still "visit" national monuments.
The pupils toured the mosque using a remote-controlled mobile monitor, dubbed a mobile telepresence robot.
They controlled the robot remotely using a computer, with a tour guide accompanying it in the Sultan Mosque.
The tour guide also took questions from the children.
The robot allowed them to zoom in on objects of interest, for instance, the mosque's architecture and furnishings, which were heavily influenced by the Indo-Saracenic style - a combination of traditional Indian and Islamic elements with European architectural features.
The pupils also used the robot to navigate around parts of the mosque usually not accessible to the general public for tours, such as the ablution area - a place for cleaning or washing - and the prayer hall.
With its assisted driving function, the robot can adjust its speed to the surroundings to avoid knocking into people or objects.
It was a first for schools here.
Mrs Lee Hui Feng, principal of Qihua Primary School, said: "The virtual live tour at Sultan Mosque was a wonderful way for our students to experience Singapore's rich heritage, especially during this period of disruption.
"Virtual experiences like this can open up new possibilities for young people to discover Singapore and beyond."
The mobile telepresence robot is currently in use at Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the Indian Heritage Centre under another NHB programme, which is targeted at people who are unable to go on heritage tours due to old age or sickness, or have mobility issues or physical disabilities.
Mr Alvin Tan, NHB's deputy chief executive (policy and community), said it is testing the Monumental Robo-Tours programme with Qihua Primary School and Edgefield Primary School before making it available for booking for all primary and secondary schools from October.
"We developed this programme because we note that students are encouraged to stay-in-school and, as a result, some students may be missing their regular learning journeys to our monuments," said Mr Tan.
"We hope to continue to provide safe access to our monuments by 'transporting' students to our monuments digitally and help them stay connected to Singapore's built heritage in an immersive and innovative way."
Besides Sultan Mosque, monuments such as the Former Fullerton Building and Chesed-El Synagogue will come on board the programme next year. In time to come, NHB hopes to add more of Singapore's 73 national monuments to the list.
Interested schools can register for 45-minute slots from October by e-mailing NHB_NationalMonuments@nhb.gov.sg.
During the Covid-19 period, NHB's Preservation of Sites & Monuments division has rolled out various digital offerings for students, including a virtual escape game, virtual tours and Telok Ayer 360, a 360-degree illustration of Telok Ayer Street by local artist Lee Xin Li.
Since July, these digital initiatives have reached out to 29 schools and been viewed more than 19,000 times.