Asian nations look to reopening

Airport officers stand in the international departure terminal at Ngurah Rai airport in Tuban on Indonesia's resort island of Bali on Oct 14, 2021, on the first day of reopening to foreign tourists amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Asian countries mull gradual reopening of borders, vaccination rates are proving critical in determining the planned policy moves that are aimed at reviving tourism and shoring up the broader economy, experts said.

“The role of vaccination in the regional reopening is critical,” said Jameson Wong, vice-president of strategic clients and partnership for Asia Pacific at travel data and analytics company ForwardKeys.

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“Vaccination would remain one key consideration for governments around the region in strategizing re-opening such that public safety continues to be protected and healthcare systems (are) not overwhelmed,” Wong told China Daily, noting that mass inoculations have proved effective in reducing the number of severe cases, hospitalizations and fatalities from COVID in recent weeks.

Speaking at a ceremony on Oct 14 to mark the arrival of a new batch of two million doses of China-donated Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines, Yok Sambath, secretary of state of Cambodia’s health ministry, said the kingdom, thanks to its high vaccination coverage, is preparing to reopen its borders to fully vaccinated foreign tourists by the end of this year. Xinhua News Agency cited the official as saying.

The role of vaccination in the regional reopening is critical. 

 Jameson Wong, vice-president of strategic clients and partnership for Asia Pacific at ForwardKeys

Cambodia has administered at least one dose to nearly 85 percent of its 16-million citizens, according to government data released on Oct 14. And as many as 12.3 million, or 76.8 percent, had been fully vaccinated with both required shots.

The kingdom has the second highest inoculation rate among member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, next only to Singapore.

Li Ailan, the World Health Organization’s representative in Cambodia, has said the kingdom’s high vaccination coverage provided a good basis for reopening economy and society safely and responsibly.

"Every country has its own pace of vaccination. We see efforts escalating” and vaccination rollouts gaining momentum, said Wong from ForwardKeys.

“Consequently, we also see countries announcing reopening plans at (their) own pace.”

In this file photo taken on Aug 14, 2021, people eat and drink under the shade of a beach umbrella in Phuket as tourists take advantage of the "Phuket Sandbox" program for visitors fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

For example, after announcing a 120-day reopening goal in June, Thailand’s daily vaccination number jumped from around 80,000 doses in May to more than 700,000 shots in October, the Bangkok Post reported, citing Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.

Prayut said on Oct 11 that his government will allow fully vaccinated visitors from low-risk countries to enter Thailand without quarantine from Nov 1.

In Indonesia, the island of Bali reopened to foreign tourists on Oct 14 after 99 percent of the Balinese have received their first doses of COVID-19 vaccines and 80 percent have got the second dose.

Within the ASEAN+3 region, the resumption (of cruise tourism) was led by cruise operators in Singapore and Hong Kong, who launched ‘cruises to nowhere’ —  or round-trip cruises without ports of call — in November 2020 and August 2021, respectively.

 ASEAN+3 Microeconomic Research Office

Elsewhere in Asia, Vietnam is expected to welcome tourists to its Phu Quoc island next month.

Japan has cut quarantine period for fully vaccinated travelers while South Korea and Singapore agreed to launch on Nov 15 a “vaccinated travel lane”, without mandatory quarantines, for fully vaccinated people traveling between the two countries.

ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea, the so-called ASEAN Plus Three, has been hit hard as a region due to the pandemic, costing its previously booming industry an estimated $1.4 trillion in lost income in 2020 and displacing around one in five travel and tourism jobs, according to an analytical note published by the Singapore-based ASEAN+3 Microeconomic Research Office, or AMRO, on Oct 11.

But progress in COVID-19 vaccinations, with six of the region’s 14 member economies having fully vaccinated more than 50 percent of their populations, augur well for a gradual recovery of travel and tourism activities in the region, said AMRO.

The cruise sector was one of the earliest casualties of the ongoing pandemic, with a fifth of the global ocean cruise fleet having recorded COVID-19 cases by the end of the first quarter of 2020. But AMRO said data has pointed to the re-emergence of cruise tourism even as cross-border travel restrictions remain largely in place.

“Within the ASEAN+3 region, the resumption was led by cruise operators in Singapore and Hong Kong, who launched ‘cruises to nowhere’ —  or round-trip cruises without ports of call — in November 2020 and August 2021, respectively,” said AMRO.

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Fresh from the restart in operations, Hong Kong saw over three-quarters as many voyages in August-September 2021 as the pre-pandemic average of 17. Singapore reached a peak of 22-24 voyages over the March-May 2021 period —representing 62-67 percent of 2019 levels.

“These relatively favorable developments in cruise tourism correspond to the improvement in air traffic in the Western economies, and help offset largely stagnant international travel and tourism in the region,” said AMRO.

Christopher Khoo, managing director at international tourism consultancy MasterConsult Services, said cruise tourism has an advantage as it can provide a controlled environment that can boost people’s sense of confidence.

“It is a very controlled environment within the cruise and that, in a sense, gives people a sense of assurance that they can travel safely,” said Khoo.

Noting that China is the largest source market of foreign tourists for many destinations in the region, Wong from ForwardKeys said the absence of China outbound tourism has crippled the tourism industry in many markets.

According to ForwardKeys data, Chinese outbound travel in 2020 recovered to only 13 percent of the pre-pandemic level, and is expected to remain at 12 percent this year. Wong said the signs of recovery remain little due to the country’s strict travel restrictions.

Wong said he expects the regional tourism sector to recover to pre-pandemic level in three to five years. On the other hand, Khoo from MasterConsult said it will take another 10 years, at least, “before we get up to the level of 2019”.

Noting many destinations will no longer have daily flight connections, Khoo said the first wave of international travelers will be the ones with urgent needs such as family reunion, business travel or medical care, rather than leisure tourists.