Tourism industry plays a crucial role in accelerating economic growth and, in some countries, takes the biggest proportion of whole country’s revenues. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the pandemic has caused a 22% fall in international tourism during the first quarter of 2020 and is forecast to decline by 60-80% over the whole year. Asia and the Pacific is the most affected region with -35 million international tourist arrivals in Q1. This crisis, consequently, leads to 100 to 120 million of jobs at risk in one of the most labor-intensive sectors of the economy.
However, the reopening of international borders and easing of travel restrictions are predicted to gradually show the sign of positive recovery in the last three quarters of the year.
Ease the Travel Restrictions
Since March when the infection curve was growing exponentially, lockdown measures were imposed by governments across the world to prevent disease transmission. The ban on entry to the countries, hence, resulted in the border closures and suspensions of international flights. Two months of travel restrictions have paralyzed economic growth, especially from the tourism industry. However, many countries with declining number of cases have set up the ‘travel bubble’—agreements between countries allowing citizens to cross borders and international flights to resume operations. The solution is expected to enable tourism activities and kickstart the economic recovery.
Significance of Tourism in ASEAN
Cultural diversity is key asset to ASEAN. The region is a unique melting pot where Indian, Chinese, Arab and European influences are nurtured. Plus its natural richness, ASEAN stands out as an extraordinary destination for tourists around the world. Therefore, tourism represents an important component of the economy of all ASEAN Member States—especially in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand, where tourism accounts for more than 10% of GDP and contributes significant employment in their economies.
Travel Bubble, an Option for Post-Lockdown Tourism
The COVID-19 pandemic has been making massive impacts on global economy and unprecedented disruption to tourism industry. The mutual agreements between countries are considered to ease border restrictions and resume business operations relating to tourism without quarantine of up to 14 days. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania already started the travel bubble after the European Commission announced the guidance on how to safely resume travel, whereas Australia and New Zealand announced the commitment to introducing the trans-Tasman COVID-safe travel zone. Japanese government also considers easing the entry ban on visitors from Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand this summer.
With a total of 332 cases and zero death, Vietnam was the first Southeast Asian nation to lift the lockdown measures in April 23. The domestic business was allowed to operate including flights, trains, restaurants, hotels and malls. Moreover, the country also expects to reopen for international tourism with a hope to kick off the travel corridor with China and South Korea, theirs major two markets.
Singapore and China, one of its biggest trading partners, launched the ‘fast lane’ on June 8 to facilitate essential travel for business and official purposes between Singapore and six Chinese provinces. Travelers are required to take a Covid-19 swab test 48 hours before departure and after arrival.
The Department of Tourism of the Philippines is considering the adoption of travel corridors between safe zones in the Philippines and other countries, possibly Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.
Thailand, who reports no new domestic cases for over two weeks, aims for domestic tourism and is studying the possibility of initiating the travel bubble with other Asian countries.
Being in the recovery stage, Malaysia will consider ‘green bubble’ concept when the infection is under control.
Trust, Safety and Sustainability
To adopt the travel bubble scheme, trust is required by the partner countries. The reciprocal arrangement should be in place when the transmission is under control and both countries guarantee the COVID-free travel zone so that travelers will be assured of safety and protection of public health. Another challenge in the recovery plan is the changing traveler behaviors. Technology becomes an essential solution to people in their day-to-day activities and is key to serving traveling experiences amidst and after pandemic. Safe and touchless travel are expected by the use of digital technologies while travelers still need to be assured that their health, data and privacy are concurrently protected.