While travel is resuming in the West, it is retreating in the East as Asian countries struggle to kickstart international tourism safely amid surges in Covid-19 cases, clusters and, most worrisome, more contagious variants. A sad reversal of fate.
The tables have turned.
In June, Skift founder and CEO Rafat Ali wrote an essay, Who Wants an American Tourist Now?, reporting how the U.S. had become the global hub of Covid-19 infections and deaths, consequently a pariah of both inbound or outbound tourism.
Now it’s travelers from India – the world’s biggest vaccine maker – who aren’t wanted. Half of all reported cases globally last week were in India, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Thailand, vaunted by WHO late last year as a model of Covid containment, is battling its worst-ever upsurge, putting its planned international opening from July 1 on the line. Quarantine for incoming travelers is back to 14 days, after a reduction to seven to 10 days since April 1.
In Singapore, another model of Covid containment, quarantine has gone up to 21 days, and the city on Friday imposed a “heightened alert.” From May 16 to June 13, the group size for gatherings is two people, from five. Dining-in is suspended. Work-from-home is the default.
Singapore said it is on a “knife’s edge” with Covid cases, i.e., cases could increase or decrease over the next few weeks. A planned two-way quarantine-free travel corridor with Hong Kong from May 26 could also go either way.
In Australia, the tourism industry is up in arms this week over the Federal Budget’s confirmation that the country isn’t likely to open its international borders until at least mid-2022. The Australian Tourism Export Council said in a statement that the budget “fails to deliver clarity” for Australia’s “flailing” tourism industry, warning that many businesses in the tourism supply chain will have to make tough decisions about their future with many likely to close.
The Lost Kingdom?
Asian countries are nervous about more contagious variants such as the B16172 that was first detected in India and appears to be spreading across the region.
The year is looking like 2020 all over again, perhaps even a tad worse, as countries that include Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, et cetera, battle rising cases.
While the West is is seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the East is choked.
The continent that sealed up borders, introduced lockdowns, quarantines and curfews, and mandated mask-wearing, social distancing and contact tracing, faces a conundrum. Are these measures, which made Asia a hero of zero Covid, backfiring and turning the region into the lost or hermetically sealed kingdom? The West, which lagged behind Asia in containment, meanwhile, is opening the floodgates for people to conduct business or meet in person, and to rediscover the joys of leisure travel.
“Travel within Europe has restarted quite well. European countries are trying to deal with the infections pragmatically and keep the numbers under control. Thailand and other Asian destinations have a ‘zero’ target. This needs total isolation – with unprecedented consequences,” said Ruth Landolt, general manager, Asia365, a Zurich-based tour operator that is part of Germany’s DER Touristik.
Thing is, she said this in a Skift article written in August 2020. As it turns out, the West is seeing that a combination of speedy vaccine rollout and a non zero tolerance approach are the key to opening.
“Who’s led the crisis better? The East has been really risk averse, putting health above economy. The West has put economy first, health second. Western countries are now putting a lot of effort in accelerating vaccination, i.e., they are catching up on the health part while still gradually opening the economy. In Asia, we’re actually still very much focused on health but vaccination is so, so far behind the West, with exceptions such as Singapore,” said Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
“Asian countries are realizing the impact that a lack of tourism has on the economy and are struggling to find a way forward because without vaccinating the population, reopening carries a risk. And that is something they don’t want to take. In contrast, look at countries like Israel and a few others that have vaccinated the majority of the population — they are ready to open,” he said.
Why oh why
The ideal match is when vaccinated travelers meet vaccinated locals. But Asia’s biggest problem is it is at the bottom rungs in vaccine roll-out, with exceptions such as Singapore and the Maldives, as seen in this Covid-19 vaccine tracker compiled by Financial Times.
How a continent that has been so focused on health over economy lags behind in vaccinating its population isn’t mind-boggling at all. Political play, for one, is transparent to many.
In Australia, for instance, the decision to keep international borders closed till mid-2022 is widely seen as a maneuver for the upcoming elections. Recent state elections in Western Australia and Queensland have shown that a tougher stance on opening wins votes.
In India, huge crowds were actually encouraged at election rallies and at the Kumbh Mela month-long Hindu religious festival held at the banks of the Ganges.
Hubris is another reason, with countries such as India and Thailand seen as victims of their own virus containment success, resulting in governments being tardy to secure vaccines early on and lowering their guards down.
Of all the world’s regions today, Asia-Pacific has sustained the largest decline of 95 percent in inbound international arrivals in the first four months, compared with 2019, latest figures from ForwardKeys show. The Americas was least affected with a drop of 74 percent, followed by Africa and the Middle East (minus 78 percent) and Europe (minus 89 percent).
“I spoke with some Asian governments and the general tone has shifted,” said Jameson Wong, ForwardKeys’ Asia-Pacific director. “In the first quarter, there was sense of optimism, with them saying they are trying to open in the second half of the year. But in the past six to eight weeks, it’s back to ‘we don’t know’. Asia’s challenge is the dynamic virus situation here.”
In contrast, there is certainty in the West that vaccination is reviving international travel. Three origin markets, Israel, the U.S. and the UK, where vaccination campaigns are particularly well advanced, have seen outbound flight bookings climb more steeply than elsewhere.
On the other end, destinations that welcome travelers who are vaccinated, such as Greece and Iceland, win the most. Flight bookings pick up “dramatically” from the moment of their announcements, said ForwardKeys.
“It’s vaccination, policy and communications, said Wong. “Greece and Cyprus are examples of two countries that communicated early on that they want travelers in summer. Travelers need time to decide where to go.”
From Australia to Thailand, tourism members are yearning for clarity.
A lot is at stake if Thailand’s plan to open to vaccinated travelers this summer, beginning with Phuket, doesn’t materialize. For Asian Trails, a tour operator specializing in European business, it’s not because of summer booking, which traditionally isn’t high. It’s about confidence.
“If the July deadline is delayed, the winter business will also suffer because then there will be a loss of confidence whether or not the Phuket Sandbox model will happen as of October,” said Laurent Kuenzle, CEO of Asian Trails.
Winter is when Europeans escape the cold. Thailand’s value-for-money, warm climate, beautiful beaches make it a favorite playground for Europeans from October to March. Kuenzle said there is already high demand.
“Several of our partners, in particular in Scandinavia and Poland, say that they are ready to send large number of clients to Phuket and Krabi starting in October if borders are open and quarantine restrictions abolished. I would say that we can expect between 30 and 40 percent of 2019/2020’s winter season charter clients this coming winter season in southern Thailand,” said Kuenzle.
As for openings in the rest of Southeast Asia, it’s chalky at best. “Possibly Bali but not the rest of Indonesia. Cambodia also says it wants to open by October. There is no official news from Laos. The news from Vietnam is confusing, but looking at how it has reacted in recent months, it’s unlikely Vietnam will open its borders this year. Malaysia’s ‘yes but no but yes but no but’ communication is also very confusing. Myanmar is sadly in a terrible state right now. I think Singapore will try to find a model to re-open, but the regulations at present is not conducive to tourism,” said Laurent.
It’s not surprising that PATA has revised Asia-Pacific’s international arrivals recovery scenario this year to “severe,” from “medium to severe” just a month ago. The association expects a growth of no more than 6 percent in international arrivals in the region this year, over 2019, versus a growth of 6 to 11 percent earlier.
This will bring back international arrivals in Asia-Pacific to the level of 20 years ago, said Hardy.
“There may be exceptions, for example, Singapore or the Maldives, but on average, I’d say it [the recovery scenario] is severe across Asia,” said Hardy.
“However, in 2022, we could look to a medium recovery as more and more people get vaccinated, and as Asian destinations see how Europe and others are ending protocols and simplifying ways for people to travel within Europe.”
The European Commission is expected to roll out a Covid-19 certificate that allows citizens who are vaccinated, have recovered from Covid-19 or tested negative to travel easily by summer.
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Photo credit: Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, once a popular destination until Covid struck. Jon Culver / Flickr