Safe, healthy travel a priority

Safe, healthy travel a priority

The hearts of all Thais are blessed and looking forward to Wednesday when the five-day Songkran holiday begins. It will be the first time in three years for us to celebrate the traditional New Year known for joyous water splashing at the hottest time of the year.

But the festivities this year will fall short of what they were before Covid-19 emerged. Traditional celebrations such as pouring water on Buddhist statues or over the hands of the elderly will be allowed. People will also be able to splash each other in managed environments that are considered Covid-free. Nonetheless, it’s a welcome opportunity to go home to visit relatives or embark on a trip in Thailand or abroad.

The celebrations come at time when most Southeast Asian economies are gradually removing travel restrictions. Malaysia this month fully reopened to foreign tourists after two years as it transitions to treating Covid as endemic.

Malaysia still requires a negative PCR test taken within 48 hours of a visitor’s departure from their home country. But the land border between Malaysia and Singapore is now fully reopened.

The reopening allows family and friends to meet again and also eases shortages of badly needed foreign labour. The Malaysian government expects 2 million tourists to visit the country before year-end, translating into over US$2 billion in revenue. It welcomed 26.1 million tourists in 2019, so the recovery still has a way to go.

Also from April 1, Singapore started to welcome all fully vaccinated travellers, removing all existing vaccinated travel lanes (VTL) and unilateral opening arrangements. It has also lifted its quotas on daily arrival numbers, nine months after the government charted a roadmap towards living with Covid-19.

The city-state hopes to see air passenger volume reach half of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. It has committed S$500 million ($370 million) to support aviation companies and workers as air travel picks up.

The Philippines started to accept tourists from 157 visa-free countries in February. It is looking at opening its borders to all foreign tourists this month pending a negative antigen test result 24 hours before a trip. Currently, a negative PCR test taken no more than 48 hours prior is required.

The Philippines recorded 8.26 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2019 but domestic tourism was the major revenue generator with 110 million trips taken.

Hong Kong has also started to allow passengers from nine countries including the US, UK, France and India, to enter from April. Almost all inbound travel in recent months has been for family visits or out of necessity. Leisure visitors remained close to zero.

South Korea, meanwhile, aims to add hundreds of international flights per week beginning in May. About 100 of those flights will be for destinations such as the US, Europe, Thailand and Singapore, where quarantine exemptions and visa-free entry are possible. Only 420 international fights a week currently serve South Korea, down from 4,714 before the pandemic.

Japan remains more cautious, having only recently reopened to foreign students, academics and workers. Last Friday it lifted its ban on non-resident foreign nationals from 106 countries but tourists aren’t included, and a cap of 10,000 foreign arrivals a day — up from 7,000 earlier — has been set.

In Asean, only three out of 10 members — Brunei, Laos and Myanmar — have clung to stringent restrictions on international arrivals as Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam are welcoming foreign tourists.

The pandemic has hit the international travel industry in Asean especially hard. Total international travel expenditure from the Asean-6 countries slumped to $24.83 billion in 2020 and rose to only $38.55 billion in 2021. A recovery to pre-pandemic levels is not likely until 2024, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicts.

Now the Russia-Ukraine war, sanctions against Russia and airspace restrictions could derail the much-anticipated yet fragile recovery of tourism in the region.

Russians became the largest and biggest-spending visitor group for many top destinations during the pandemic, displacing Chinese unable to travel due to their country’s strict border controls.

As uncertainties still cloud the road to recovery of the sector, tourism-reliant Southeast Asian economies are likely to increasingly open their borders. As vaccination rates increase, collaboration between local authorities and tourism businesses is essential for tourism to resume safely and responsibly in a way that helps build confidence among domestic and overseas consumers. For travellers, adhere to health and safety requirements and avoid crowded destinations to protect yourselves.

Wishing you all a Happy Songkran. Stay safe, everyone.