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UK Paves The Way for A Greener and Carbon-Free Future

The UK is working to create a policy for building a more sustainable future for itself through the New Green Industrial Revolution, aiming to attain net-zero emissions in the UK by 2050. As the country separated itself from the EU through Brexit, it is also setting its own environmental goals and in that, its own version of the EU’s 2019 Green Deal (we wrote about it in The EU Green Deal – Good on Paper but Is That Enough? in March 2020). With highly ambitious targets, the proposed investments are worth GBP12 billion, creating 250,000 jobs in the process. While this seems like a promising funds allocation, the plan’s success will actually depend on significant investments in next-generation technologies, which have currently not been proven commercially. Moreover, a lot will depend on an equal involvement from the private sector that might be more cautious with investments than the public sector.

The UK is in a bid to position itself at the forefront of global markets for green energy and clean technologies. To achieve this, it proposed a 10-point Green Industrial Revolution in November 2020, which aims to mobilize GBP12 billion funds and create 250,000 jobs in the UK. Through this plan, the UK aims to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The key areas covered under the plan include offshore wind, hydrogen, nuclear, electric vehicles, public transport, jet zero and greener maritime, homes and public buildings, carbon capture, nature, and innovation and finance.

UK Paves The Way for A Greener and Carbon-Free Future

Offshore wind

The new Green Industrial Revolution outlines the UK government’s commitment to put offshore wind energy at the forefront of the country’s electricity needs. It has increased the offshore wind targets from previous 30GW to 40GW by 2030, aiming to produce enough energy to power all homes in the UK by 2030.

In addition to this, the government plans investments of about GBP160 million to upgrade ports and infrastructure in localities that will accommodate future offshore wind projects (e.g. Teesside, Humber, Scotland, and Wales).

This investment in developing offshore wind energy is expected to support about 60,000 direct and indirect jobs by 2030 in construction and maintenance of sites, ports, factories, etc.

While the government’s plan is great on paper, meeting the 40GW target will require 4GW of offshore wind projects to be commissioned every year between 2025 and 2030, which is extremely ambitious and challenging. Moreover, just developing offshore wind projects will not be enough until works are also done to update the electricity grid. Further, the target 40GW generation is calculated based on current electricity demand by households, which in reality is bound to increase as a shift towards electric vehicles is being encouraged.

Hydrogen

With the help of industry partners, the UK government plans to develop 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industries, transport, and residences. The government is expected to publish a dedicated Hydrogen Strategy in 2021, to position the UK as a front runner in production and use of clean hydrogen. It plans to develop 1GW (of the planned 5GW) hydrogen production capacity by 2025.

A central part of the UK’s Hydrogen Strategy is expected to have hydrogen potentially replace natural gas for the purpose of heating. The government is undertaking hydrogen heating trials, commencing with building a ‘Hydrogen Neighborhood’ and potentially developing a plan for the first town to be heated completely using hydrogen by 2030.

In addition to this, works with industry partners are under way to develop ‘hydrogen-ready’ appliances in 2021, such that new gas boilers can be readily converted to hydrogen if any future conversion of the gas network is commissioned. To facilitate this, the government is working with Health and Safety Executives to enable 20% hydrogen blending in the gas network by 2023. However, this is subject to successful trials.

In transportation, an investment of GBP20 million in 2021 is planned to test hydrogen and other zero emission freight truck technologies in order to support the industry in developing zero-emission trucks for long-haul road freight.

To achieve these targets, a GBP240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund is planned to be set up. It will provide capital co-investment along with the investment from private sector to develop various technologies. These will include carbon capture and storage infrastructure for the production of clean hydrogen that can be used in home, transport, and industrial requirements. The policy is expected to support 8,000 jobs by 2030 and push private investment worth GBP4 billion by 2030.

However, the government’s ambitious 2030 hydrogen policy requires significant investment and participation from the private sector. While several global companies such as ITM Power, Orsted, Phillips 66, etc., have come together to collaborate on the Gigastack project in the UK (which aims to produce clean hydrogen from offshore wind), such private participation will be required on most projects to make them feasible and meet the targets.

Nuclear power

In search of low-carbon electricity sources, UK plans to invest in nuclear energy. In addition to development of large-scale nuclear plants, the investments will also include small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors.

To this effect, the government has set up a GBP385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund. Of this, GBP215 million is to be used towards small modular reactors, i.e., to develop a domestic smaller-scale nuclear power plant technology that could be built in factories and assembled on site. Apart from this, GBP170 million is to be used towards research and development of advanced modular reactors. These are reactors that could operate at over 800˚C, and as a result, unlock efficient production of hydrogen and synthetic fuels. These are also expected to complement the government’s other investments and initiatives with regards to hydrogen and carbon capture.

While the government expects the design and development of small modular reactors to result in private sector investment of up to GBP300 million, these next generation small reactors are currently considered a long shot as no company has created them yet. While Rolls Royce has offered the government to design one, it is conditional on them receiving a subsequent order worth GBP32 billion for 16 such reactors as well as the government paying half of the GBP400 million design cost.

Moreover, nuclear power plants are expensive and long-term investments and are considered to be one of the most expensive sources for power. Thus it is very important to evaluate their economic feasibility. While the government is bullish on the role of nuclear power in decarbonizing electricity, it is very important for large-scale projects to be economical, while small-scale projects still remain at a conceptual stage.

Electric vehicles

It is estimated that cars, vans, and other road transport are the single largest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions, making up nearly one-fifth of all emissions emitted. Thus the government is committed to reducing carbon emissions produced by automobiles. To achieve this, the country plans to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 (10 years earlier than initially planned). However, hybrid cars will be allowed to be sold till 2035.

The government has planned a support package of GBP2.8 billion for the country’s car manufacturing sector, which in turn is expected to create about 40,000 employment opportunities up till 2030. Of this, GBP1 billion will be used towards the electrification of vehicles, including setting up factories to produce EV batteries at scale. In addition to this, GBP1.3 billion is planned to be spent to set up and enhance charging infrastructure in the country by installing a large number of charge points close to residential areas, office and commercial spaces, highways, etc., to make charging as convenient as refueling. The government plans to have a network of 2,500 high-power charging points by 2030 and about 6,000 charging points by 2035. Lastly, grants are planned to the tune of about GBP582 million up till 2023 to reduce the cost of EVs (cars, vans, taxis, and two-wheelers) for the consumer. In addition to the investment by the government, private investment of about GBP3 billion is anticipated to trickle into the sector by 2026.

While this is considered to be a very important step in the right direction, it is estimated that it will still leave about 21 million polluting passenger vehicles on the UK roads by 2030 (in comparison to 31 million in 2020). Moreover, the government continues to allow the sale of hybrid cars for another five years beyond 2030, which means that carbon emissions-producing vehicles will still be added to UK roads even after the target dates set in the New Green Industrial Revolution plan.

Green public transport

In addition to reducing carbon emissions from passenger cars, the government also wants to make public transport more approachable and efficient. It plans to spend about GBP5 billion on public transport buses, cycling- and walking-related initiatives and infrastructure.

In addition, funding of GBP4.2 billion is planned on improving and decarbonizing the cities’ public transport network. This will include electrifying more railway lines, integrating train and bus network through smart ticketing, and introducing bus lanes to speed up the journey. The plans also include investment in about 4,000 new zero-emission buses in 2021, as well as funding two all-electric bus towns (Coventry and Oxford) and a completely zero-emission city center. While York and Oxford have shown interest in becoming the UK’s first zero-emission city center, the government has not yet formally announced the city for the same.

Improvements in public transport networks in other cities are also planned to bring them on par with London’s system. A construction of about 1,000 miles of segregated cycle lanes is in plans to encourage people to take up this mode of transportation for shorter distances.

While it is expected these investments will encourage people to use public transport more, the current COVID pandemic has created apprehensions when considering such shared transportation. Although this is expected to be a short-term challenge, it may be a slight damper to the government’s plan for the next year or so.

Jet zero and green ships

Apart from road transport, the government also aims at decarbonizing air and sea travel. It plans to invest GBP15 million in FlyZero – a study by Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) aimed at identifying and solving key technical and commercial issues in design and development of a zero-emission aircraft. Such an aircraft is expected to be developed by 2030. In addition to this, the government plans to run a GBP15 million competition for the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in the UK. The plans also include investing in upgrading airport infrastructure so that it can service battery and hydrogen fueled aircrafts in the future.

In addition to aviation, the government is also investing GBP20 million in the Clean Maritime Demonstration Programme to develop clean maritime technology.

While the plans to develop greener fuel for aircraft and ships is a step in the right direction, it is still somewhat of a long shot as a lot more investment is required into this than proposed. Moreover, the shipping industry in particular has shown little interest in wanting to reform in the past and it is likely that both the sectors will continue to follow international standards (that are high in carbon emissions) to remain competitive globally.

Greener buildings

The UK has a considerable number of old and outdated buildings that the government wants to put in the center of its Green Industrial Plan, thus making existing and new buildings more energy efficient. The plan is to slowly phase out carbon-heavy fossil fuel boilers currently used for heating buildings and instead promote the use of more carbon efficient heat pumps. For new buildings, an energy efficiency standard is to be developed, known as the Future Home Standard. To achieve this, the domestic production of heat pumps needs to be ramped up, so that 600,000 heat pumps are installed annually by 2028. This is expected to support about 50,000 jobs by 2030. In addition to this, the government is providing GBP1 billion to extend the existing Green Home Grant (launched in September 2019) by another year, which is aimed at replacing fossil fuel-based heating in buildings with more energy efficient alternatives.

While the subsequent shift to heat pumps from gas boilers will definitely help reduce the buildings’ carbon footprint, heat pumps are currently much more expensive and more difficult to install. Thus, the government must provide ongoing financial incentives for consumers to make the switch.

Carbon capture, usage, and storage

Carbon capture, usage, and storage (CCUS) technology captures carbon dioxide from power generation, low carbon hydrogen production, and industrial processes, and stores it deep underground, such that it cannot enter the atmosphere. In the UK, it can be stored under the North Sea seabed. A the technology has a critical role to play in making the UK emission free, a GBP1 billion investment is planned to support the establishment of CCUS in 4 industrial clusters by 2030 to capture 10Mt of carbon dioxide per year by 2030. Developed alongside hydrogen, these CCUS will create ‘SuperPlaces’ in areas such as the North East, the Humber, North West, Scotland, and Wales. The development of the CCUS is expected to create 50,000 jobs by 2030.

CCUS is a very new technology, with no large-scale or commercially successful projects operational across the world. While the technology has been proved in pilot projects, its feasibility is yet to be seen. Also, a significant amount of private investment will be required to carry through the proposed project. While some private players, such as Tata Chemicals Europe have begun constructing the first industrial-scale CCU plant (expected to capture 40,000 tons of CO2 per year) in Northwich, the government needs several more private players to step up to meet its ambitious targets.

Nature

In addition to the above mentioned programs, the government plans to safeguard and secure national landscapes as well as restore several wildlife habitats to combat climate change. To achieve that, it plans to reestablish several of the nation’s landscapes under National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), as well as create new areas under these two heads. The National Parks and AONB program is expected to add 1.5% of natural land in the UK and will help the government in reaching the target of bringing 30% of the UK’s land under protected status by 2030.

In addition to this, the government plans to invest GBP40 million in nature conservation and restoration projects, which in turn is expected to create several employment opportunities across the country. Moreover, it plans to invest GBP5.2 billion over six years into flood defenses, which will help combat floods and damage to homes as well as natural environment. This is also expected to create about 20,000 jobs up till 2027.

Green finance and innovation

The last agenda on the 10-point Green Industrial Revolution entails developing new sources of financing for supporting innovative green technologies. To this effect, the government has committed an R&D investment of 2.4% of its GDP by 2027. This will extensively be used towards developing high risk, high reward green technologies, which will help the UK attain net zero emissions by 2030.

Additionally, the government launched a GBP1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio that will focus on commercialization of low-carbon technologies mentioned in the 10-point agenda, including development of floating offshore wind, nuclear advanced modular reactors, energy storage, bioenergy, hydrogen, greener buildings, direct air capture and advanced CCUS, industrial fuel switching, and other disruptive technologies. In November 2020, the government launched the first phase of this investment, GBP100 million, towards greenhouse gas removal and in the coming year it plans to invest another GBP100 million towards energy storage. It also plans to invest GBP184 million for fusion energy technologies and developing new fusion facilities. Moreover, GBP20 million will be directed towards development and trials of zero emission heavy goods vehicles.

Apart from this the government plans to issue the UK’s first Sovereign Green Bonds in 2021. These bonds, which are likely to be first of many, are expected to finance sustainable and green projects and facilitate the creation of ‘green jobs’ in the country. Furthermore, similar to the EU Green Deal, the government plans to implement a green taxonomy, which helps define economic activities into two categories – the ones that help limit climate change and others that are detrimental to the environment – to help investors make better investment choices.

EOS Perspective

The UK’s Green Industrial Revolution seems to be a comprehensive policy with a multi-pronged approach to tackle climate change, promote green technology and investments, and achieve net zero emissions by 2050. With Brexit in action, it seems like a worthy counterpart to the EU’s Green Deal, which the UK was initially a part of. Moreover, it is an important framework for the UK to show its commitment towards controlling climate change, especially with the country hosting the upcoming 26th session of the Conference of the Parties (CoP 26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in Glasgow in 2021.

However, currently the UK’s Green Industrial Revolution is not a legally binding policy document but more of a proposal, which would need to go through several legislative procedures to become binding. Moreover, while the plan is ambitious, it depends heavily on next generation innovative technologies that require hefty investments to achieve the targets. Thus, its success depends on whether the government is seriously committed and prepared to spend heavily on commercializing these technologies along with managing to attract significant amount of private investment to complement own efforts. While few aspects of the 10-point approach have already received investment from the private sector and first phase of funding from the government, it is yet to be seen if the UK’s ambitious net zero emission goals are truly feasible.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: Thomas Cook’s Demise – An Eye Opener for Tourism Sector?

There are few people who would not recognize Thomas Cook, as the company carved its name as a premier travel company in the UK as well as globally. Its name became synonymous with travel for many customers, as reminiscent from its slogan of “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it”. Unable to strike a deal to refinance its burgeoning debt, Thomas Cook, UK’s oldest package tour company, shut down operations this Monday, facing compulsory liquidation, and sending passengers as well as the tourism sector into panic. While the announcement may come as a shock, warning signs of the company’s jeopardized existence have surfaced several times over the past decade.

Thomas Cook has been in the news for large part of this year, as the company reported a record pre-tax loss of GBP1.5 billion, with the auditor raising concerns about Cook’s ability to manage a recovery. The company has been trying to secure funding of GBP900 million from banks and the Shanghai-based conglomerate Fosun, while also offloading parts of its packaged tours and airlines business.

However, an inability to secure an additional GBP200 million funding as working capital to cover cost of operations for winter season, which is traditionally characterized by low demand, meant that the company failed to secure its near future. As a result, Thomas Cook entered compulsory liquidation, fate it would have faced earlier, had it not funded its operations through accrued debt over the years, which eventually led to the company’s collapse.

Thomas Cook’s debt problem

It is not the first time that Thomas Cook has to run for its life, with serious doubts rising about the company’s existence already in 2011. At that point, Thomas Cook managed to survive by securing some expensive credit facilities, as well as restructuring and cost-cutting. However, all this came at a cost. High interest paid on these credit facilities left a heavy burden on cash flows.

The company showed signs of recovery in the following years, even posting a pre-tax profit in 2015 and bringing net debt to more acceptable levels. However, due to market conditions and other contributing social and economic factors, the company’s tour operator business displayed a particularly weak performance, suffering massive losses in 2018. These losses resulted in the company struggling to maintain working capital, as well as witnessing net debt increasing close to GBP350 million by end of 2018, with the trend continuing in 2019.

Other contributing factors

While debt remained the largest problem, other factors contributed to Thomas Cook’s demise. Proliferation and growth of budget airlines and hotel offerings such as Airbnb had already increased competition for Thomas Cook, impacting the company’s bottom line, as customers were shifting to these low-cost options.

Demand was also impacted by the 2018 heatwave in Europe, with customers from UK and Northern Europe preferring to stay at home instead of travelling to other warmer European countries, such as Spain and France, which are key contributors to Thomas Cook’s business. Total demand has also been impacted by the lack of clarity around Brexit, with customers delaying their travel decisions under the growing economic uncertainty.

Impact on the tourism sector

The collapse of a major player such as Thomas Cook is expected to impact the tourism sector, albeit primarily in the short term. Thomas Cook had developed relationships with hotels and businesses in key destinations, which are dependent on the company’s customers for majority of their revenue during peak seasons. Thomas Cook’s collapse will negatively impact these players, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, business is expected to return to normal as these companies will develop new relationships.

While customers may look to Thomas Cook’s competitors for their travel needs in the short term, limited capacities (or partnerships) are likely to make the competitors unable to take up this additional demand unless they are paid a premium for it.

EOS Perspective

The collapse of Thomas Cook highlights the challenge that traditional tour operators face in the current tourism market. Customers are shifting from traditional packaged tours to offers that allow them to decide their own destinations, and make bookings through lower-cost online service providers. Traditional players, which generate most of their revenue through offline sales channels, have been put under pressure to evolve their business model, to adopt an online channel that offers more convenience and flexibility to their customers.

Emergence of innovative travel platforms, such as Airbnb, has also put pressure on the bottom lines of these traditional players, impacting their ability to invest in new business opportunities without accumulating debt. Thomas Cook is not the only one impacted. Recently, SOTC (formerly known as Kuoni) has also been in the news for its negative debt position.

Thomas Cook’s case, however, comes as an eye-opener for the tourism industry players, clearly showing that they cannot continue to take on excessive debt. More conservative approaches and cost management need to be considered to build a profitable, and more importantly, sustainable business.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Europe Fights Back to Curb China’s Dominance

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Given the swiftness of China’s economic development in the past three decades, transitioning from an impoverished and insular country to one of the formidable economic powers of the world, it has taken some time for Europe to accept China’s growing power and influence. Not only does China sit on largest currency reserves worldwide, but it has also become a significant provider of foreign investments, including in EU nations. This has recently strengthened China’s influence over the EU, which has created a sense of caution amidst European policymakers.

How is Europe benefiting from China’s growing investments?

Europe-bound Chinese investments were six times higher than Chinese investments in the USA – in H1 2018, Chinese investments in Europe stood at US$ 12 billion as compared to US$ 2 billion in the USA. For some of the economically struggling EU countries, Chinese investments are critical for developing and upgrading infrastructure, including energy plants, railways, motorways, and airports.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, under which cross-border infrastructure will be developed, will reduce transportation costs across Europe and China, creating an opportunity to facilitate trade expansion, regional integration, and attract foreign investments.

Besides infrastructure development, the investments are likely to create job opportunities and enhance economic competitiveness across Europe.

Then why is China’s growing influence alarming Europe?

Europe now sees a range of threats that China’s rising dominance in the region could bring along. Recently, the European Commission labelled China as economic competitor seeking technological leadership and systemic rival encouraging alternative models of governance. Europe realizes that China pursuits to shape globalization to suit its own interests.

The EU is deeply concerned regarding China exercising divide and rule tactics to strengthen its relationship with individual member countries that are susceptible to pressure, which could eventually harm the European cohesion. Recently, Italy signed the Belt and Road initiative, a landmark move against the counsel of western European nations, such as France and Germany, thus, raising questions on cohesion of EU countries.

The other concern is China’s rising influence over key governments of EU nations, thus, empowering itself with political leverage across the continent. China has already yielded political returns by wearying EU unity, particularly, when it is related to European policy on international law and human rights. In 2017, Hungary broke EU’s consensus by refusing to sign letter on human right violation against China. During the same year, Greece blocked an EU statement, which condemned China’s human rights record, at the UN human rights council.

Besides politics, China has also spread wings across key sectors of economy such as infrastructure, high-end manufacturing (including critical segments such as electronics, semiconductors, automotive, etc.), and consumer services, among others – growing dominance of China across these sectors is another cause of worry for the EU.

Europe also condemns China’s discrimination against foreign businesses, rendering limited market access to European firms and employing a non-transparent bidding processes. European firms operating in China face several trade and investment barriers such as joint venture obligations and discriminatory technical requirements that entail forced data localization and technology transfers. On the other, European markets have been open to foreign investments leading to massive Chinese FDI. However, lack of reciprocity harms European interest and could lead to unfulfilled EU-China trade ties.

The EU also criticizes China’s Belt and Road project for its lack of respect for labor, environment, and human rights standards. Other concerns include non-transparent procurement procedures with majority of contracts being awarded to Chinese companies without issuing public tenders, meagre use of domestic labor and limited contractor participation from host country, and use of construction materials from China – all of which undermine Europe’s interests.

Europe Fights Back to Curb China’s Dominance

How is Europe responding to China’s actions?

Europe is adopting strategies to limit China’s influence and reach across Europe and beyond, in African and Pacific countries.

Development of EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy

The EU’s new initiative, EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, is an implicit response to China’s Belt and Road initiative, signifying a crucial first step to promoting European priorities and interests in terms of connectivity. The initiative aims to improve connectivity between Europe and Asia through transport, digital, and energy networks, and simultaneously promote environmental and labor standards.

The EU’s initiative emphasizes sustainability, respect for labor rights, and not creating political or financial dependencies for the countries.

Robust FDI screening process

European nations have been increasingly alarmed due to state-owned Chinese companies acquiring too much control of critical technologies and sensitive infrastructure in the continent, while China shields its own economy.

For the same reason, EU parliament is developing an EU-level screening tool to vet foreign investments on grounds of security to protect strategic sectors and Europe’s interests. The regulation will protect key sectors such as energy, transport, communication, data, space, technology, and finance.

While the EU still remains open to FDI, the regulation will protect its essential interests. Nonetheless, stringent investment screening procedures are likely to limit foreign investments in the continent, particularly from China.

Tackling security threat posed by China

In March 2019, the EU Parliament passed resolution asking European institutions and member countries to take action on security threats arising from China’s rapidly rising technological presence in the continent.

The resolution is likely to impact the ongoing debate of whether to eliminate China’s Huawei Technologies from building European 5G networks. The EU is concerned that the Chinese 5G equipment could be used to access unauthorized data or sabotage critical infrastructure and communication systems in the continent.

To minimize dependence on Chinese technology firms (such as Huawei Technologies), EU countries would need to diversify procurement from different vendors or introduce multi-phase procurement processes.

EU countries expanding footprint to counter China’s reach

Since 2011, China has invested US$ 1.3 billion in concessionary loans and gifts across the Pacific region, and has established its supremacy by becoming the second largest donor. China has been trying to build its influence, as the Pacific is bestowed with vast expanse of resource-rich ocean and the regional countries have voting rights at international forums such as the United Nations.

To counter China’s reach and ambitions across the Pacific countries, European nations such as the UK and France plan to open new embassies, increase staffing levels, and engage with leaders in the region. The UK plans to open new high commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa by the end of May 2019 and France is looking to meet and engage with Pacific leaders during the year.

Investment in Africa to limit China’s influence

As a strategy to curb China’s growing influence, the EU plans to deepen ties with Africa by boosting investment, creating jobs, and strengthening economic relations. The plan is to create 10 million jobs in Africa over the next five years. Europe is also aiming to establish free trade agreement between the two continents.

In recent times, China has been blamed of neo-colonial approach towards Africa, which is aimed at emptying the continent of its raw mineral in exchange for inexpensive loans, extensive but inferior infrastructure, among others. Europe aims to curb such influence by attempting to do business ethically. 

EOS Perspective

Unnerved by flurry of Chinese investments in the continent, the EU is looking to regain its control over matters. Europe has adopted a defensive approach against China’s initiatives, reflected through measures taken to protect critical sectors using investment screening system. The EU understands the downsides of enormous Chinese investments/loans, which may seem hugely enticing in the beginning, but could saddle vulnerable countries in debt they cannot repay – for example, a Chinese-built highway in Montenegro is likely to increase the country’s debt to about 80% of its GDP.

Currently, the key issue is the fact that Europe is standing divided on the right strategy to respond to bolder and ambitious China. While countries such as Germany, France, and UK have grown skeptical of China and are revolting against it, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Greece, among others, are generally China-friendly. Europe has certainly become stern and tougher on China, but cannot pursue its interests without standing united.

The current situation does not demand Europe opposing China outright, but rather ensuring fair business conditions and equal market access through dialogue and cooperation with China.

Nonetheless, the EU has been quite slow to wake up to the various challenges that excessively ambitious China brings to the table. However, if Europe is able to become united now, there is still a chance to build a decent Sino-European partnership that serves interests of both parties.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Tunisia’s Bruised Tourism Industry Starts to Recover

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The tourism sector of Tunisia has been in turmoil over the past few years. The terrorist attacks on Sousse beach and Bardo National Museum in Tunis in 2015 crippled the industry, which had been witnessing a healthy growth before these events. As the Tunisian government and tourism industry players have been implementing strategies to revive the industry, some progress has been witnessed. However, the damage to the country’s image was grave and it is yet to be seen if the measures being taken will put the industry back on the growth trajectory.

Grave repercussions to the sector

Post Tunisia’s political revolution in 2011, the government started promoting tourism both domestically and internationally, and by 2014, the tourism sector contributed 15.4% to the country’s GDP. However, the terrorist attacks in 2015 in Sousse and Tunis killed nearly 60 foreign tourists (including 30 UK nationals) and significantly tarnished the image of Tunisia as a safe tourist destination.

The concerns over safety, reinforced by travel bans and no-travel recommendations issued by some EU countries, resulted in a drastic fall in the number of overseas tourists arriving in Tunisia. A travel ban issued by the UK authorities was particularly damaging to the local tourism sector, as UK had been the key demand-generating market for Tunisia. Between 2014 and 2017, the number of incoming travelers from the UK declined by 93% to 28,000 and many renowned UK travel companies, including Thomas Cook and TUI, discontinued their services in Tunisia.

The tourism sector had always been crucial for Tunisia’s economy and was one of the country’s key employment sectors, employing over 200,000 people before the attacks. The sudden decline in country’s tourism industry impacted cash inflow, business operations of several tourism industry players, and further destabilized the already faltering economy of the country.

The Recuperating Tourism Sector of Tunisia

Government reaction and first results

After two years of struggle, the Tunisian tourism market started showing first modest signs of recovery in 2017, following measures undertaken by the government to boost tourist footfall in the country. The Ministry of Tourism’s initial steps to help the industry survive included covering of social security contributions for tourism entities such as hotels, resorts, restaurants, etc., by the government, with the intention to help the providers maintain their employees and stay afloat. While this helped reduce the impact, the country still saw a massive loss of jobs in travel and tourism in 2015.

Simultaneously, the government tried to address the most pressing issue directly responsible for the decreased demand for Tunisian tourism services – traveler safety. To make tourists feel safe, the government tightened security around touristic sites, particularly in Sousse and Tunis. Additional surveillance equipment was placed at airports, hotels, and resorts to enhance security, while sector staff and various security forces received training on detecting suspicious behaviors and on counter-terrorism. Over the following years, Tunisia also received help from western countries in raising its security standards and procedures.

While these initiatives were needed and welcome, preventing attacks of this sort in a country located in close proximity to conflict zones, requires massive funding and complete, deep overhaul of its security and counter-terrorism system at all levels. Regardless of whether the steps already taken are sufficient or not to truly ensure safety, they certainly offered greater sense of protection to tourists, a fact promptly and extensively communicated to target customers across British and other European media.

The government of Tunisia has also taken measures to balance out the losses by trying to diversify its demand markets. To attract tourist from outside Europe, visa requirements for countries including China, India, Iran, and Jordan were eased with the introduction of visa on arrival. This strategy helped Tunisia attract Chinese tourists, whose footfall increased 56% y-o-y in January-May 2018 period.

To fuel business travel arrivals, the MoT started granting one-year multi-entry visa to businessmen and investors of these countries as well. Further, the MoT also removed entry visa requirements for countries including Angola, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Cyprus.

In parallel, the industry realized the need to broaden the sector’s offering. One such initiative was to expand the premium and luxury tourism segment targeting (quite interestingly) particularly British affluent travelers (indicating a continuous bet placed on British customers). In 2017, Four Seasons Hotel Tunis was opened, a major step in putting the country on the luxury tourism map, followed by a few more luxury resorts openings. In several locations premium activities have been developed, including marine spas and golf courses.

Europe’s cautious return to holidays in Tunisia

The measures appeared to have worked, and in 2017, the industry witnessed growth of the number tourists by 23.2% y-o-y to reach 7 million. While the government actions were to some extent successful, it was the lifting of travel ban to Tunisia by EU countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and the UK that was the main factor leading to growth.

Recovery was further supported by the return of travel companies such as Thomas Cook and TUI, which resumed operations in Tunisia. Moreover, an air service agreement was signed in late 2017 between the EU and Tunisia to increase the number of direct flights between European countries and Tunisia, which soon led to the return of European airlines including Air Malta and Brussels Airlines on these routes.

All these developments have helped to revive tourism sector and regain European visitors to a certain extent. The number of tourists, particularly, from France and Germany, increased by 45% and 42%, respectively, y-o-y for the period of January-May 2018. This growth in tourist footfall was a great sigh of relief for local industry players, whose businesses have suffered tremendously post attacks.

UK tourist, the most valuable visitor, reluctant to come back

Despite Tunisia’s attempts to diversify its demand markets, the country sees UK as the most important source of tourists for its tourism sector. According to the Tunisian Hotel Association, the market will not fully recover until the British visitors are back in numbers from before the attacks, which will also send a strong message to the world that Tunisia is safe for travel again.

Before the attacks, tourists from the UK formed the bulk of most valuable visitors to Tunisia with high spending capacity, the strongest inclination to spend on high-end accommodation and local cuisines, staying for longer duration in the country, and shopping extensively for locally-made products.

Rebuilding Tunisia’s image in the eyes of British tourists is therefore seen as of great importance. While some British tourists started to return to Tunisia (following tightened safety measures and an extensive publicity thereof) many UK travelers continue to remain wary, and in spite the lift of the travel ban, British arrivals have not reached pre-2015 levels. This reluctance is difficult to break, as UK tourists still do not fully trust that their safety will be ensured, a fear further underpinned by tensions in Tunisia’s neighboring Muslim countries (e.g. Libya).

Some issues remain unresolved

The inability to bring back the UK tourists at levels from before 2015 is still a major problem to the local industry. Although the government undertook several initiatives to improve tourist safety, these steps are likely to be insufficient to prevent such events in the future.

Amidst Tunisia’s frail economic conditions, the availability of sufficient funds to truly and permanently ramp-up security is limited. Moreover, Tunisia must be able to ensure ongoing counter-terrorism abilities as a preventive measure, a task requiring a systematic approach and continuous financing, without dependence on western governments. Considering Tunisia is surrounded by areas prone to continuously produce this sort of danger, ensuring the right intelligence and financing is likely to be a challenge.

Tunisian tourism sector is fighting several battles at the same time, and the blow it received in an aftermath of the attacks had broad repercussions. Various structural issues, which had been present before 2015, still persist. This includes a relatively large share of poor quality accommodation and hotel services, which are not up to par with international standards and expectations of a western tourist, therefore are detrimental to market growth. The 2015 events put several hotel operators under heavy debt and in fight for survival, which pushed upgradation of hotel facilities much lower on their priority list.

There is also a shortage of well-trained hotel and other tourist services staff, which makes it difficult for the Tunisian tourism industry to compete with countries such as Turkey, especially if the substandard service level is paired with outdated and poorer hotel amenities and services. Tunisia does have training centers, however the aftermath of 2015 attacks put the entire sector along with ancillary industries in a standstill, therefore several training center have not been functioning at full capacity. Recovery will take time and it will be a while till a sufficient number of well-trained hotel staff will become available.

EOS Perspective

With tourism playing a pivotal role in Tunisia’s economy, the country found itself in a very difficult position as a result of the attacks. The revival of tourist footfall since the summer of 2017 is definitely encouraging, however the industry is still not out of the woods and needs to continue to work along with the government to ensure the return of the tourists, by addressing the key issues – safety and quality of services.

This should also be a good moment for Tunisia to realize the risks of reviving the industry with the same over-dependence on limited variety of demand markets as before (i.e. UK), and intensify its efforts to diversify target markets across Europe and beyond.

Apart from introducing and maintaining fundamental changes to the safety of the traveler and to what the industry offers, the country needs to revamp the way it markets itself so that it can improve its image and boost tourism. In the past, public authorities and industry players have not paid much attention to promoting the country’s tourism market on social media, relying largely on tour operators and agencies. However, promoting a positive image of the country along with advertising tourist facilities through online channels might help Tunisia reach broader customer segments across markets, e.g. by influencer endorsements (quite a successful approach for Abu Dhabi and Turkey, to name just a few, in the past).

It is also important for Tunisia to look beyond traditional mass-market, organized tourism and explore other avenues of revenue. More focus could be put on promoting cultural tourism as well as access to Sahara Desert – key attraction for people visiting south of Tunisia. Local investors have already started working to develop offers with local cuisines and immersive desert experiences, along with authentic-themed hotels and restaurants.

Tunisia has also made the right (although modest) steps to address the issue of substandard hotel amenities and unclear standard of accommodation that can be expected by tourists. Changes are being made to classification of hotels, as the current star rating system is outdated and based on size and capacity rather than quality of services. Efforts are being made to re-classify hotels in line with international standards. Such reforms are crucial for the industry to ensure higher level of customer satisfaction.

Rebuilding damaged image is always a long and difficult process and Tunisian authorities must do whatever possible to prevent similar attacks in the future. If the public authorities along with the industry players continue to make efforts to pull the country’s tourism market out of the pit, the optimistic expectations about tourist arrivals reaching 12 million by 2028, with a CAGR of 4.6% over 2018-2028, are likely to become reality, bringing back much needed employment and revenue to the economy.

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UK Airlines Expected to Face Turbulent Times with Brexit on the Horizon

As the UK heads towards a hard Brexit, one of the industries that could be facing the maximum heat is the airline sector. The country’s aviation sector has for long enjoyed the perks of UK being an EU member, as its business greatly benefits from two of the EU’s four fundamentals of freedom of movement – freedom of movement of people and of cargo/goods (with the other two being freedom of movement of capital and of services). However, with UK triggering Article 50 (divorce clause) of the EU treaty, the European Commission has warned British airlines about several restrictions that are likely to be imposed on their EU routes in case the UK and EU fail to reach a new agreement. This has left the airline sector in a state of high uncertainty. While several airlines, such as EasyJet, have already started working on a contingency plan, others chose to follow a wait-and-watch approach.

Airlines industry has definitely been one of the key beneficiaries of the UK being an EU member. As per the EU’s Open Skies Agreement, all EU members are allowed to fly anywhere across the EU states. This rule gave the British airlines access to fly not only from London to Paris but also from Milan to Paris, expanding the airlines’ passenger base.

However, with Brexit being an absolute certainty, UK airlines fear losing access to the EU’s single aviation market which they have for long promoted and championed. Since the EU-UK divorce seems to be a rough one, airlines have little hope for a continued Open Skies Agreement. The sector’s worries have been further deepened by the fact that British PM, Theresa May, has clearly expressed her inclination to end the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over the UK matters. Since ECJ (which is the highest court in the EU in matters of European Union law) also presides over European Aviation Law and in turn the Open Skies Agreement, the end of its authority over the UK will automatically result in the removal of UK’s aviation sector from the Open Skies Agreement.

Moreover, within days of the UK triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty (i.e. formalizing the exit process that needs to be completed over two years), the European Commission has sent out warnings to British airlines about several compliances they must adhere to, to continue flying intra-EU post Brexit. In order for these airlines to continue flying on these routes, they must comply with EU’s strict ownership rules, which state that airlines operating intra-EU flights must be based in an EU state and their majority stake must be owned by EU citizens. Failing to abide by these regulations will result in the UK losing its rights to fly intra-EU flights. Alternatively, as a counter to EU’s regulations on UK airlines, it is well expected that the UK will put similar stipulations on EU-based airlines that wish to fly intra-UK flights.

These two-sided restrictions will affect several airlines such as British EasyJet, Irish Ryanair, and IAG-owned airlines – Irish Aer Lingus as well as Spanish Iberia and Vueling, which derive a great deal of their business from flying within the EU countries and UK cities. While some of these airlines have preemptively started deploying a contingency plan, others are still waiting for some more clarity and are hoping for a positive outcome in the form of an agreement similar to Open Skies.

UK Airlines Expected to Face Turbulent Times

EasyJet

One of the first movers with regards to an action plan has been EasyJet. Being a UK-based company deriving a large part of its revenue from low-cost intra-EU flights, EasyJet will be one of the airlines hit the worst. Since losing its intra-EU business is not an option for the carrier, it has already set up a European sister company in Vienna, EasyJet Europe, in July 2017. About 100 planes have been assigned to the subsidiary and the total cost of the project is about US$13 million.

EasyJet does not face a major hurdle with regards to ownership requirements for EU airlines. It is currently 84% owned by EU citizens, a stake that will fall to 49% post Brexit provided that the shares of its owner, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who is a dual UK and EU citizen, are accounted as EU citizen-owned. However, since the 49% ownership is going to be only slightly below the required mark, the airlines will not have much issue in meeting the requisite ownership requirement.

With these two aspects settled, the EasyJet is likely to be able to continue operating its international and domestic flights across the EU states.

Ryanair

Ryanair, unlike EasyJet, does not need to move its base as it is already headquartered in Dublin, Ireland. However, the airline faces ownership pressure as the shares owned by EU citizens will fall from 60% to 40% after Brexit. To ensure compliance with the ownership rule, as a first step, the airlines could possibly ask the fund managers holding their stock to switch the funds in which the shares are held from their UK-based funds to Dublin-, Milan-, Frankfurt-, Ireland-, or Luxembourg-based funds. However, if that does not work, the company does have extraordinary provisions in its articles of association to force non-EU investors to sell their stake to ensure major control and ownership by EU nationals.

However, the airline might be facing a larger threat looming on the horizon. In case the UK replicates similar flying barriers on EU-based carriers, Ryanair might be negatively affected, as the UK is an important domestic market for the airline. To ensure smooth operations in the UK, the company will need to apply for a domestic UK Air Operator Certificate (AOC) which will let it continue its operations without major changes.

IAG-owned Airlines (British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, and Vueling)

IAG-owned British Airways is likely to remain among one of the least Brexit-affected airlines as is does not fly intra-EU flights. Moreover, the group’s other airlines including Spanish Iberia and Vueling, as well as Irish Aer Lingus already are based in the EU and therefore can continue flying within the EU. However, the group has refused to comment on its shareholding structure which will be required to be majority EU-based for the latter three airlines to continue intra-EU operations. As per industry experts, IAG, which also has extraordinary provisions for force sale in their articles of association, may need to divest some of their non-EU-based stake and replace it by stake held by EU nationals.

EOS Perspective

While there is a significant uncertainty about the fate of the airline industry post Brexit, there is a common consensus that the sector is likely to be hit hard by the divorce. The UK and EU markets aviation sectors are largely inter-dependent, whether it is about air traffic or employment in the sector, and potential lack of regulations similar to the Open Skies Agreement will be detrimental to the industry in general as well as its consumers. This makes it vital for the Brexit negotiators to try to develop a mutually beneficial deal for the sector in general.

Having said that, it is clear that the airlines must prepare for the worst as the UK and EU seem to be heading for a hard divorce. Brexit process was formally started in March 2017 and the UK has two years to conclude all procedures and negotiations leading to the EU exit, which also puts the same timeframe for the sector to develop contingency plans. Some players, such as Ryanair hope that some form of Open Skies Agreement will be replicated, and continue to put pressure on their government for such a similar agreement to be negotiated. Other players, such as EasyJet, seem to take a more proactive approach, already investing resources in ensuring their smooth operations even if the worst case scenario materializes. Such an uncertainty about shifts in the operating environment is never favorable for any sector, UK airlines included, and as the future developments of the operating framework lie largely in the hands of negotiators, the industry players hold rather limited control over the future changes.

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BREXIT: First Thoughts

Streit ums Haus

In a landmark decision, UK’s citizen expressed their preference to leave the European Union. While the process is not straight forward, and will take at least two years to complete, Britain could struggle to lift the markets sentiment in a short to medium term.

Sterling Pound, probably one of the strongest currencies in the world, immediately suffered the largest drop in the past 30 years. Stock markets across the world have also responded to the news, with most stock exchanges witnessing a significant drop in share prices. This only reciprocates the negative market sentiment currently dominating the market. Some even feel that announcement of BREXIT could be a dawn a new recession period, similar to the 2008 crisis.

Britain will have to undergo massive negotiations over the next two years – not only in terms of their relations with other EU member countries, but also at a more granular level. Most companies will have to renegotiate their EU-wide contracts, to enable provisions for a separate/independent Britain. A major challenge will be addressing trade with EU member states, as well as countries with which EU has signed free trade agreements, which according to estimates puts about £250 billion worth of trade at risk.

Several companies, especially the ones which use Britain as the base to serve other EU markets, have been left in the midst of turbulent waters, unsure of what pans for them in the future. All will again depend on how negotiations go among the 27 EU member states during a long drawn process, after Britain enforces the Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, for officially exiting the EU.

China, already suffering from the stock market and debt crisis in early 2016 following a crash in crude oil prices, could see its trade with European countries taking a hit. UK is the second largest customer for China in Europe. Weakening of the Sterling Pound and Euro is expected to erode the competitive advantage that China sought by devaluing its currency several times since August 2015. Moreover, the negative market sentiment is also likely to drive the crude oil prices further downwards, which could add the pressure on the debt-ridden country.

The knock-on effect will also be felt in other emerging markets in Asia. Nomura’s analysts predict growth rates in other Asian emerging markets to drop by up to 1.0 percentage point.

EOS Perspective

While many expect the impact of BREXIT to be felt gradually, the short terms scenario certainly seems to point otherwise. All will depend on how the exit process progresses, along with the negotiations, which might leave Britain in a slightly less advantageous position. Even if all goes well, it will take several years to attain normalcy.

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McDonald’s – Facing the Heat Globally

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With more than 36,000 outlets globally, out of which 14,000 are located in the USA alone, McDonald’s is rightly known as the fast-food giant. After decades of expansion that saw the brand conquer leading markets across the globe, McDonald’s seems to have been losing its sheen across leading markets since 2014, with the biggest challenge arising in its home market. Growing health consciousness among consumers, new diverse competition, legal hassles, and supply chain troubles have kept McDonald’s in the news for all the wrong reasons, while dropping profitability has forced this leading fast-food chain to shut down about 700 outlets globally in 2015 and further 500 in 2016. With a change in management and a proactive approach to upgrade its offerings, at least in its home market, the chain does seem to have a plan of action in place, however, it is yet to be seen if it is enough for damage control.

In an unprecedented step, McDonald’s (McD’s) shut down 700 outlets globally (350 outlets in the USA and 350 outlets in its remaining countries of operations) in 2015, and it expressed plans to shut down further 500 outlets globally in 2016. While the company maintains that this will help weed out unprofitable stores, it definitely does spell trouble for the world’s largest burger chain. The biggest concern, however, remains that the slowdown does not stem from poor performance in any one economy but an amalgamation of issues faced by the brand across the globe.

1-McDonald’s Struggles

2-McDonald’s Struggles

3-McDonald’s Struggles

As McD’s strides through one of its worst times, the company looks to tackle the dim outlook with a head-on approach. As one of the first steps, in March 2015, the company changed its management, appointing Steve Easterbook as CEO in place of Don Thompson (who served the company as CEO since July 2012. Since taking charge of the driving seat, Steve Easterbook (who was previously responsible for turning around the company’s business in the UK), has introduced several initiatives that seem to reinvent the brand offerings and reprise its lost reputation.

In the USA, the company introduced all day breakfast and introduced a new customizable menu called ‘TasteCrafted’ in nearly 700 outlets in the USA. The new menu is the company’s attempt to follow the Chipotle strategy of personalization of meals and presents consumers with the choice of three buns, three different meats, and three different styles of toppings. The company has also tried to tackle the minimum wage issue by raising wages in company-owned outlets in the USA, however, this created dissatisfaction among franchised outlets employees. However, even as a start, these measures have helped the company improve sales at home (US sales witnessed the first rise in two years in Q3 2015).

Internationally, and especially in Asia, the company is working towards stricter supply chain auditing to rebuild its brand image. In the Chinese market, the company has launched several healthier options such as apple slices, veggie cups, and multigrain muffins to attract the health-conscious consumers. McD’s is also looking at massive expansion in China, with plans to open about 250 new outlets each year over the next five years. It wants this next wave of growth to stir from the franchising model. Similarly, the company is looking at the prospects of selling a stake in its Japanese operations to a local investor, who could help the company turnaround its Japan business.

EOS Perspective

As McDonald’s woes seem to arise from a mix of dissatisfied stakeholders – consumers, partners, and employees across the globe that vary for each economy, it is not far-fetched to say that the company stands the risk of losing its leadership position across its top markets (as it already has in India). Several strategic decisions are being made by the brand to return to its past glory, however, these seem more long term in nature and therefore will have a significant gestation period before their results are visible.

While the company is largely looking to lean on franchising to spur growth and streamline operations, such as dependence on franchising can act as a double-edged sword especially in times when the company is facing tarnished reputation in several of its leading markets.

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Alcohol in Pouches – Fad or Business Reality?

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Packaging and labeling are one of the key factors driving alcohol purchasing decision for an average consumer. For years, the alcohol packaging industry focused on developing sleek, sophisticated bottles with elegant labels, a significant factor in brand positioning. Beer was amongst the first alcoholic beverages to be poured into something other than glass container. Beer cans gained popularity several decades ago, however always posed the problem of lack of resealability, one of the most important package attributes for consumers. In wine segment, sales of carton box (e.g. Tetra Pack) and bag-in-box packaged wine started to accelerate in early 2000s, though these were mostly associated (sometimes not without a reason) with substandard quality products. This has continued to improve, however till date, it is the bottle that still rules alcohol packaging, and any other form of packaging in alcohol drinks generally meets with consumers’ skepticism and assumption of inferior quality.

With a relatively new concept of alcohol sold in pouches, it is unreasonable to expect a different reaction, with associations with baby beverage rather than classy adult drink. However, something is buzzing in the alcohol pouch packaging industry, and while still marginal, several launches of alcoholic drinks and beverages in this packaging format were welcomed with surprising consumer acceptance.

What’s the growth story so far?

In September 2012, Nielsen reports indicated that retail sales of pouch-packaged alcoholic beverages were about US$200 million annually (compared to US$12 million sales in a comparable period in 2010). This growth is being eyed by more and more producers, and invites market entries across new products, flavors, and alcohol types. Interestingly, it is being observed that this new packaging format brings additional sales and expands the market – while there is some level of cannibalization of existing sales with consumers shifting from purchases of bottled drinks to pouched drinks, there is a number of new consumers, who never bought such drinks before (and probably would not have tried them in bottled format, if it was not for the curiosity of trying a new drink in a pouch).

Ready-to-drink and frozen cocktails are currently the leading segment, in which pouches are gaining popularity. For instance, sales of several frozen cocktails such as margaritas and daiquiris, offered by brands such as Daily’s and Cordina in 187ml and 296ml pouches, are known to have witnessed healthy growth in 2012 in the USA, and it is expected that majority of growth will continue to be experienced in this market. The UK has also seen launches of pouched alcoholic drinks over the past few years; however, they were typically associated with summer season.

Another segment to have seen pouch launches was, surprisingly, vodka. In early 2013, Good Time Beverages launched its first Ultra Premium Vodka in flex pouches, positioning the product as an environmentally- and budget-friendly option. This was an addition to the existing line of pouched Good Time Beverages’ products, Bob & Stacy’s Premium Margarita and Big Barrel Spirits.

In wine segment, while multiple wineries in the USA, Australia, Europe, and South Africa have been using pouches for several years, the trend is yet to take off in mainstream use. This is mostly due to the fact, that the common perception of wine being a traditional and sophisticated product clashes with pouches being typically associated with hip, unsophisticated, low quality products. Launches of pouched wine products tend to focus around multiple-serve quantity pouches, e.g. launches by Echo Falls and Arniston Bay, both in 1.5 liter stand-up pouches with dispensers, launched in the UK in ASDA in summer 2013. The products were so popular that, ASDA followed with the launch of its own pouch wine brand. ASDA’s sourcing arm, IPL Beverages, which deals with bottling and pouching, said that the demand for pouched wines was so great that it led to sales forecasts being outstripped by 400% by the actual demand.

What’s so great about the pouches?

Contamination and oxygen barrier

Glass has long been considered the best material to store wine and other alcohols, mostly due to the fact that it is neutral and does not lend flavors to the bottle’s content, even during long-term storage. Alcohol was also too aggressive for most flexible packaging available in the market, affecting the layers of films used in such pouches and compromising their safety and durability. Therefore, previous limitations to the introduction of pouches in alcohols packaging were driven not by the problems with leakage or thickness, but rather with the right choice of materials and laminating – materials that would offer adequate protection and prevent product’s ingredients from changing their properties. The currently available pouches do not pose such problems, e.g. with triple-layer structure: polyethylene terephthalate, aluminum metalized film, and polyethylene. Instead, they offer very good oxygen barrier with around one year shelf life as the tap nozzle allows for one way flow, and once the beverage is poured, oxygen does not enter the container, extending the product’s freshness.

Ability to compete in economy price range

Selling alcoholic beverages, such as wine or vodka, in a pouch, enables the producer to compete against the glass bottle in the economy price range, both in single serving capacity, as well as larger 1.5-2 liter pouches. For instance, in 2012, the single-serve 10-ounce pouches of fruity malt-beverage alcoholic drinks by Parrot Bay or Smirnoff retailed for around $1.99 in the USA. Thus, it was a cheap, easy-to-carry option that offered these alcoholic drinks at a fraction of a bar or bottled equivalent price. In Europe too, economy packs of wine, sangria, and other drinks in larger 1.5 liter pouches meet with customer acceptance, allowing the producers to increase sales.

Lightweight for reduced transportation costs and greener label

The traditional glass bottle always brought challenges, due to its energy intensity in production process, as well as weight and fragility in transportation. Pouches, on the other hand, offer reduced weight and by far greater resistance in transportation, considerably reducing transportation costs (using less fuel to transport same amount of the product), at a lower risk of breakage. Pouches are also presented as a greener alternative to glass, as they do not require such energy-heavy production process. Additionally, many currently available pouches are increasingly made with recyclable materials. Overall, pouches are believed to offer an 80-85% reduced carbon footprint compared to glass (i.e. flexible film pouch is said to offer a carbon footprint of approximately 20% of traditional glass bottles). Also, producers indicate that in alcohol packaging, the cost of pouches stands at around 68% of the cost of traditional bottling.

Frozen single- and multiple-serve convenience

From consumer’s perspective, too, pouches have the potential to deal with some of the disadvantages inherent to glass bottles. Several alcoholic drinks launched in a pouch are positioned as straight-from-the-pouch, instant, ready-to-drink cocktails, that do not require the use of cork pullers or even glasses. Currently offered pouches, thanks to metalized layers, allow for faster cooling (about half the time required to chill a bottle), and can be frozen, while cans and bottles cannot. Such ready drinks are typically launched in single- or double-serve size, allowing the consumer to save time of preparing a real drink. There have been several launches in larger capacities as well, such as Pernod Ricard’s Malibu rum launched in 2010, at 1.75 liters pouch size. The product was not positioned as a single serve but rather emphasized it was enough for 10 cocktails, for use in larger gatherings or over period of time, thanks to resealable nozzle. Also in wines segment, pouches, thanks to their reduced weight and resistance, can be larger, at 1-2 liters. 2-3 liter pouches are particularly popular in food service sector, e.g. in restaurants selling wine by the glass.

Lightweight for on-the-go use by consumers

Reduced weight and resistance to breakage have found consumers’ acceptance, as pouched alcoholic beverages are often positioned as on-the-go, convenient, easy products for use in outdoor situations, picnics, concerts, boating, barbecues, etc. Convenience of pouches also comes from the pack’s stability thanks to the popular stand-up design, commonly offered reseability (in a form of a tap or screw cap, a considerable advantage over vast majority of cans). Pouches are believed to be stronger, safer, and more convenient for consumer transportation, and they eliminate the risk of an unpleasant realization of having left the cork puller at home.

Challenges and question marks

It is unlikely, to say the least, that the nearest future will see pouches enter the mainstream dinner-table use. As of 2013, pouches had rather limited application in retail alcoholic drinks markets globally, with differing levels of popularity across regions and seasons. The most significant challenge for this packaging format is still to build consumer trust in quality of an alcoholic drink sold in a pouch. Equally important challenge is to overcome the consumers’ perception that classy alcoholic beverages (wine, vodka) should come only in a bottle and perception of mismatch of pouched wine and traditional wine etiquette.

While the list of potential advantages of pouches in alcohol packaging is unquestionably robust, there is still a key question of the consumer’s long term acceptance of this packaging format. It remains unclear what it will mean to a range of alcoholic beverages, especially in wine, whisky, and vodka segments, which have traditionally positioned themselves in upper to premium segments. Will the pouches, no matter how sleek or elegant in design, affect such a brand positioning? Will they ever go beyond the outdoor use, and enter mainstream use (dinner tables in homes and restaurants)? Will a pouch be ever fully accepted in such sophisticated setups, or will the association with juices, baby drinks, or inferior quality remain too strong? And finally, while producers emphasize green aspects of pouches in terms of production and transportation, what is the real environmental impact of such pouches ending up in a landfill, considering that not all used pouches will enter recycling stream?

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