Southeast Asia has been implementing incremental measures to reopen its borders and restart international tourism. Several governments are aiming to attract higher revenue-generating international tourism, although domestic tourism has helped in cushioning pressure for local jobs and businesses in tourist destinations to an extent. The World Travel and Tourism Council’s estimated that travel and tourism contributed to Southeast Asia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for about $380 million in 2019 or 12% and over 42 million jobs or over 13%. In 2019, Cambodia and the Philippines received largest contribution of over 26% and 25% of GDP respectively from travel and tourism, however, in absolute terms Thailand received $107 billion, the Philippines $90.9, Indonesia $63.6 billion, and Malaysia and Singapore over $40 billion. According to ADB Southeast Asia Development Solutions, the hard-hit tourism sector incurred a loss of 8.4% of Southeast Asia’s GDP in 2021. The Covid-19 situations are stabilising in the region, nonetheless, the globalised nature of Southeast Asia makes its tourism and economy vulnerable without international mobility.
Now, more uncertainty lies ahead with ‘no end in sight’ in the light of new Covid-19 variant, Omicron categorised as a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO. The EU, the US, and UK have imposed travel bans from South Africa. WHO has sounded alert to Southeast Asia to remain vigilant and strengthen its health care system. Singapore, thus, is following suit by delaying the vaccinated travel lane flights from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE until further notice which were scheduled to start from December 6. The Philippines too has placed 14 countries from Europe and Africa for travel ban. Likewise, entry ban has been imposed for high-risk eight African countries by Thailand, seven by Vietnam, and ten by Indonesia.
Reopening borders require domestic preparation to improve infection management, vaccination, and social mobility. The Nikkei Asia Covid-19 Recovery Index ranks 121 countries on these parameters which measures their preparation for transition to “living with Covid-19”. The latest Nikkei Asia Covid-19 Recovery Index for October shows progress in ranking for Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia (41st as against 54th for September Index), Philippines (103rd/121st), Cambodia (47th/76th), Malaysia (50th/102nd), Thailand (95th/109th), and Vietnam (95th/118th). However, Myanmar and Laos need to improve their standings and the biggest decline is for Singapore slipping to 100th in the last two months from 7th in July. The higher ranking indicates low Covid-19 infections, higher vaccine rollouts and improved social mobility or relaxed physical distancing measures. As of November 24, Our World in Data records fully vaccinated share of the population for Singapore to be 92%, Cambodia 78%, Brunei 76%, Malaysia 76%, Vietnam 46%, Thailand 56%, Laos 38%, Indonesia 33%, Philippines 28%, and Myanmar 17%.
The improved Covid-19 conditions allow countries for relaxation of mobility restrictions concerning public health. Government emphasis on maintaining a balance between public health and mobility provides positive psychological and regulatory effects which can instil confidence of travellers. Therefore, a series of government announcements have followed this pursuit in recent months. For example, Cambodia have reopened public gatherings and transport services. It has lifted all quarantine requirements for both national and foreign travellers, who are free to travel anywhere after showing only a rapid test negative result from November 15. In Singapore, preparation for a transition to “living with Covid-19” is vivid as the health minister Ong Ye Kung announced that “stabilisation phase ends on November21 and return to transition phase”, which could be seen in increasing the size of social gatherings from two to five in restaurants and hawker centres and coffee shops.
Indonesia’s recovery strategy is reopening with extreme cautions. It ended its nation-wide movement restrictions from December 6, but for Bali and Java it was from November 29 onwards. Keeping in view of international tourism, public transport, restaurants, and public parks can operate with certain restrictions in Java, Bali and Jakarta.
On November 12, Thailand announced a delayed reopening of nightlife entertainment places until January 15, 2022. It has permitted for people who got vaccinated at least one dose to engage in socio-economic activities such as public gatherings and public transport. Since its ban on sale of domestic tickets in September, Vietnam resumed domestic air traffic from October 10 for 10 provinces and cities including Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi to start with. It scrapped full vaccination requirement for domestic air passengers from October 21 to promote domestic tourism.
Some governments have pushed for improving their supply side of tourism through international cooperation in the form of travel bubbles like vaccinated travel lane (VTL). Air bridges connecting cities for green lanes can promote businesses and short term travels. The Singapore’s Inter-agency Task Force for Covid-19 has approved in-principle to reopen its borders to fully vaccinated tourists. Singapore has created 12 quarantine-free VTL with Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US which are operational. Moreover, VTL flights from India, Indonesia and Malaysia commenced from November 29. Singapore has capped a maximum number of 10,000 daily inbound travellers through all VTLs. This is a remarkable step to reboot the international air travel and lead neighbouring countries to look up to. Recently Singapore also hosted big global companies for conferences. The PMs of Singapore and Malaysia inaugurated the land VTL for the Johor-Singapore Causeway on November 29 for which a trial run was conducted on November 23 to check VTL protocols and processes. It will allow separated families to reunite after almost two years of border restrictions on both sides and strengthen economic and business ties. The air VTL between Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Flight Airport also began on November 29.
Indonesia allowed entry of foreigners who were fully vaccinated as early as September 15, whereas visa-on-arrivals are still restricted. Indonesia also considers to expand its tourist basket from neighbours by allowing inter-regional travel for either vaccination certificate or negative covid-19 test report only.
In July, to revive its tourism, Tourism Authority of Thailand brought ‘Phuket Sandbox’ which is a ring-fence tourist spot with relaxed Covid-19 restrictions for travellers. Since then, Thailand has allowed 63 countries or territories, initially 10, to enjoy free-quarantine travel from November 1, 2021. Any fully vaccinated traveller from around the world can visit its 17 sandbox destinations under the ‘Living in the Blue Zone’ Sandbox scheme starting from November 1. Thailand targets to achieve visitors of about 300,000 over November and December. The ‘Phuket Sandbox programme is a model for neighbouring countries to open tourism along similar line in Bali, Bintan and Batam for Indonesia, Langkawi for Malaysia and Phu Qioc for Vietnam.
It is reported that Indonesia’s effort of getting foreign tourists back is seeing a setback as hardly tourists are coming to Bali, which contributed 60% of GDP from tourism before the pandemic, are returning. Indonesia’s and Bali’s recent quarantine period of three days for both foreigners and locals is still higher than that in Thailand’s Phuket Sandbox. Indonesia, and also Thailand to a certain degree, needs to remove complications over cumbersome guidelines for different islands and travellers (foreigners and locals). Indonesia is also looking to open a VTL with Malaysia. On October 14, Indonesia allowed entry to Bali and the Riau Islands from 19 countries including European countries like France, Hungary, Italy, Liechtenstein, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Vietnam has recognised fully vaccinated certificates from 72 countries for entry.
Malaysia seeks to reopen its borders fully to foreign travellers from January 1, 2022. On November 15, it allowed foreign travellers to quarantine-free visit to the islands of Langkawi. Philippines opened its borders on a trial basis starting from December 1. Given its low vaccination rate, it will have to go a long way to bring back the foreign tourists, which decline by about 78% last year.
From November 2, Indonesia has been providing tax incentives for Covid-19 affected businesses such as tax exemption for number of businesses classifications was increased to 397 types of businesses from 132 businesses earlier and 50% installments of income tax for 481 businesses classifications from 216 earlier. It should improve the supply side of tourism in which small and medium enterprises constitute a chunk of the travel and tourism businesses. Such measures indicate Indonesia’s focus on making tourism sustainable and resilient.
The Cambodian government provides a financial support of $ 500 for the Covid-19 deaths in hospitals. The government also has extended economic relief packages like tax exemptions and monthly wage subsidies until the end of December in the manufacturing, tourism and aviation sectors.
Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are well known for supporting the citizens through several tax incentives. Singapore’s Jobs Support Scheme granted employees of tourism and hospitality sector in the form of cash grant up to March 2021. The government provides tourism grant for S$90 million for training the industry professionals to revive the sector and another tourism credits for Singaporeans to drive local spending for Singapore’s eateries, shops, hotels and leisure destinations. Thailand has been at the forefront in increasing liquidity for tourism through a funding programme called ‘We Travel Together’ in the form of three tourism packages worth $ 7.1 billion from July 2020 to August 2021, which was planned to get extended by another one month (May 2021-August 2021) but was discontinued due to rising Covid-19 cases in April 2021. Malaysian government set aside RM1.6 billion in Budget 2022 to revive tourism sector to benefit 26,000 employers and 330,000 employees, tourism infrastructure- including repair of 738 budget hotels. RM60 million of the fund is dedicated to promote domestic tourism and up to RM1,000 for individual income tax relief for domestic tourism expenses until the assessment 2022.
Indonesia, under analternative village programme, is focusing on ‘quality tourists rather than quantity tourists’ by opening new unexplored natures and local cultural sites to tourists in an attempt towards diverting visitors from busy tourist centres and promoting a clean, healthy and environmental sustainability destinations like Mount Inerie in the island of Flores which also have traditional Gurusina villages. Besides, it also gives emphasis on adventure tourism attracting local middle class citizens to trekking, kayaking and river tubing. In addition to appealing to its 280 million strong domestic tourists in a year, a direct appeal by governments to foreign travellers can alleviate apprehensions about the covid-19. For example, the minister of tourism and creative economy Sandiaga Uno’s direct appeal to Singaporeans to come and do weddings in Indonesia and take-away memories can mitigate tourist fears. However, still Southeast Asia’s border openness is less than those of major European countries.
Singapore has digitised its tourism sector with Tourism Information & Services Hub (TIH) which gathers information on tourism services in Singapore. It provides above 4,000 listings and 13,000 media assets across wide-ranging 12 categories. TIH service is linked to tourism websites and mobile applications allowing tourism actors, tour operators, hotels and other hospitality players to expand their consumer base. Then, Thai Airways opened in-flight dining experiences in pop-up restaurants in the Bangkok headquarters for those who miss flying.
Southeast Asian countries have learnt to adapt to the pandemic situations through ingenuity, collaboration on transnational tourism policies and improvement in requirements of entry. The varying global Covid-19 situations means that Southeast Asian tourism authorities will continue to explore and adapt for ‘tourism for future’ as international air travel is estimated for a delayed recovery by 2024 only. The recent preparations in Southeast Asia face even bigger challenges now with the fresh surge in Covid-19 cases in European countries such as Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Moreover, the sighting of new Covid-19 variant, Omicron in South Africa which is assumed to spread faster than the Delta variant will compel more countries to close borders and affect Southeast Asian tourism.
The piece has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, University of Delhi & PhD research scholar, Jawaharlal Nehru University