Optimism Surrounds the Potential for Travel in Southeast Asia


The pandemic has had a devastating impact on global tourism, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Encompassing the region historically known as Indochina, including Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and the Peninsular Malaysia, Southeast Asia is home to 655 million people. With its ancient temples, vibrant cities, tropical beaches, and exotic wildlife, the region attracted visitors from near and far prior to the arrival of Covid-19. We explore the potential reopening of travel across Southeast Asia in 2021 and beyond.

The impact of Covid-19 on Southeast Asian countries

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Covid-19 did not spread as rapidly in Southeast Asia as it did in many other regions. Indeed, WHO suggests that the rest of the world may have much to learn from the response of Southeast Asian nations, who acted promptly following the emergence of the novel coronavirus, taking robust steps to contain the pandemic despite having only limited fiscal space.

Nevertheless, with Southeast Asia home to some of the most tourism-reliant nations in the world, coronavirus-induced global lockdowns have had a massive financial impact, reaping devastation on regional tourism. Throughout the summer of 2020, while many European travel destinations were open for business, Southeast Asian borders remained largely closed. A report published by WHO reveals that the Asia and Pacific region experienced a decrease in visitor arrivals in the first quarter of 2020 alone. In Southeast Asia, as in many other regions, the pandemic hit already vulnerable demographics the hardest.

Global vaccination programs and a potential bounce back in tourism

As countries around the world implement Covid-19 vaccination programs, market analysts predict a rebound in international travel, facilitating recovery from last year’s slump. According to research from travel market analyst IPK International, 62% of travelers are intent on venturing abroad in 2021.

IPK International’s report cited the fear of contracting Covid-19 as the most commonly given reason for avoiding international travel. Of those respondents who were intending to travel, 90% confirmed that they were willing to be vaccinated.

However, the research reveals one significant change in tourist behavior. Vacationers are showing a strong preference for staying within their own region, with Europeans, Asians, and Americans typically choosing trips on their continent for 2021. The report revealed a 70% decline in outbound international travel throughout 2020, with Asia hardest hit. Globally, international holiday bookings fell by 71%, with international air travel down by 74% worldwide in 2020.

Although the pandemic is largely under control in most Southeast Asian countries, many remain reluctant to reopen their borders too quickly, for fear of triggering a rapid rise in infections.

Some Southeast Asian countries are cautiously welcoming international travelers

Cambodia accepts international vacationers, subject to certain restrictions. Visitors must organize their visa in advance. They must also return a negative Covid test result within 72 hours of departure. In addition, they must have travel insurance with at least $50,000 in medical coverage. All international visitors must quarantine for 14 days, either at a government-approved hotel or government facility.

Thailand is officially open to travelers from all destinations, except India. As in Cambodia, visitors must organize their visa in advance of travel, as well as quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. In addition to the requirement for a negative test result within 72 hours of departure, international tourists are retested twice while in quarantine.

Although Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia (including Bali) are currently off-limits to international travelers, and Cambodia and Thailand imposing lengthy spells in quarantine, the recovery of the regional tourism industry appears promising.

Government efforts to bolster the industry by promoting domestic tourism

All over the world, 2020 was the year of the staycation, with few vacationers venturing too far from home.

The Thai and Vietnamese governments have both invested heavily in domestic tourism campaigns, with Thailand launching a $641 million scheme providing travel subsidies to boost tourism, incentivizing domestic vacationers by facilitating significant discounts on transport and accommodations, as well as offering e-vouchers to cover food and other services.

Since April 2020, the Vietnamese government has been encouraging citizens to explore their own country, increasing domestic flights and discounting fares.

Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, domestic travelers represented 29% of the market in Asian Pacific hotels. From China and Japan, to Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, governments across the Asian continent are continuing to concentrate their efforts on domestic travel as part of an effort to bolster the tourism sector.

In many Southeast Asian nations, domestic travel is serving as a vital boost to the economy. Fortunately, with strident vaccination programs underway in many countries, in terms of international travel, for 2022, and potentially even the latter part of 2021, the picture looks much rosier.

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