South East Asia Races to Restart Travel

The prolonged shutdown of borders in South East Asia could be nearing an end. As talk turns to Sandboxes and Vaccinated Travel Lanes, is the region moving closer to welcoming back international travellers?

 The race is on. After 18 months without international travel, the 10 countries of South East Asia are scrambling to devise safe strategies to welcome vaccinated tourists by year end.

 Thailand fired the starting gun by launching its Phuket Sandbox in July. In August, Singapore added quarantine-free travel from Hong Kong and Macau to a list featuring China and Taiwan. In September. It opened Vaccinated Travel Lanes permitting inbound and outbound travel to Germany and Brunei, with a promise of more to follow.

 Keeping populations safe while vaccination programmes scale up and ensuring medical services are protected remain national priorities. These factors hinder border policymaking, bringing frequent u-turns.

 Progress is slow. Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam delayed reopening plans for parts of their countries, most notably Bangkok, Bali and Phu Quoc. Meanwhile, Cambodia and Malaysia, are locked in closed-door discussions to clarify their reopening objectives.

 This slow-motion state of flux was summed up by Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister.

More than 80% of Singapore’s population is fully vaccinated, but it is experiencing a new spike of infections and has reintroduced COVID-19 counter-measures.

 Mr Balakrishnan told the Straits Times this week that Singapore intends to reopen its borders “sequentially, safely and carefully,” but added, “Right now is the time to be careful.”

Bali's Kuta Beach, a major magnet for Indonesian tourism/ photo wikimedia

 Economic Urgency vs Political Caution

 South East Asia is counting a spiralling economic cost. Collectively, the 10 nations greeted 143.5 million visitors in 2019, including 580,000 arrivals from New Zealand. Finding a viable pathway to revive the devastated travel sector has been a recurrent theme for the past year.

 Three countries have stood at the forefront. Indonesia, South East Asia’s largest nation, Thailand, its most visited country in 2019, and Singapore, the primary air travel hub.

 Indonesia attempted to reopen Bali to inbound travellers in September 2020. One month later, in October, Thailand introduced its short-lived Special Tourist Visa. In November, Singapore and Hong Kong endeavoured to launch a quarantine-free Air Travel Bubble.

 None of these projects succeeded because in the pre-vaccine era few Asia Pacific countries – which are key visitor source markets –  permitted their citizens to travel overseas. This suffocation of travel demand has continued throughout 2021.

 At the cusp of the fourth quarter of the year, economic realities are now biting hard. With vaccination rates rising, governments have little option but to begin restoring inbound travel.

 Timing is vital. November to February is South East Asia’s peak season. Enabling tourists to return – even on a partial, heavily restricted basis – could build a recovery platform for 2022.

Ban Tai Beach on Thailand's Pha-Ngan island/ photo wikimedia

 Reconstructing the Phuket Sandbox

 Vast land masses and large populations determine that most of South East Asia’s tourism talk focuses on individual island destinations, rather than national roadmaps.

 This permits governments to channel vaccine supplies to relatively small island populations and hit target thresholds for reopening, usually 70-80%. It also means inbound travellers are isolated from the majority population, and virus outbreaks should be easier to contain.

 For these reasons, Indonesia is prioritising Bali. Vietnam is concentrating on Phu Quoc. Malaysia – which prohibited domestic travel from mid-January to mid-September – recently reopened the holiday island cluster of Langkawi on a pilot basis for vaccinated residents.

 These island-only travel strategies are designed to emulate Thailand’s Phuket Sandbox.

Phuket is one of Thailand's major tourism drawcards/ photo supplied

 On 1 July, Thailand kick-started its phased reopening to tourism. The Phuket Sandbox invited vaccinated travellers from over 60 countries to visit the island of Phuket.

 All arrivals must stay for 14 days if they wish to travel onwards in Thailand. This ‘relaxed quarantine’ enables relative freedom on the island, although many restaurants, bars and shops are closed. All accommodation must be booked and paid for in advance, and travellers must show medical insurance coverage of at least USD$100,000.

 In mid-July, the Sandbox scope was broadened to an “Extension Area,” comprising Ko Samui, Ko Pha-ngan, Ko Tao, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Ngai, Khao Lak, Ko Yao and Railay Beach.

 7 + 7 Extension = Not Enough

 This is where it gets complicated.

 The ‘7+7 Extension’ scheme enables arriving vaccinated tourists to stay for 7 days in Phuket. They can then obtain a ‘Transfer Form’ for a second 7-day relaxed quarantine on another island in the Extension Area. During this time, trips are permitted between these islands. After two 7-day stays, a ‘Release Form’ enables travel elsewhere in Thailand.

 The administrative complexity and restrictive nature of the Sandbox have drawn heavy criticism, both from within Thailand and beyond.

 Results have been unimpressive. Tourism Authority of Thailand targeted 129,000 Phuket Sandbox visitors from July-September. By 27 September it had attracted just 37,463 arrivals.

 Around half of those are estimated to be Thai nationals and residents using the Sandbox as an alternative route back into Thailand, thereby avoiding a hard hotel quarantine in Bangkok.

 More worrying for the tourism sector, forward hotel bookings for October-December are just 151,865 nights. By contrast, Thailand received 10.34 million visitors from October-December 2019.

 This week, Thailand revised its strategy once more. Four new phases are designed to open up more of the country between October and January 2022. Bangkok is currently scheduled to reopen in November.

 The Elephant in the Airport Lounge

 The protracted implementation of the Phuket Sandbox has shown that the new era of travel is subject to the machinations of various government ministries. This is further highlighted by new delays for reopening Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hua Hin, Pattaya and Phetchaburi.

 Confused governmental discourse and the absence of transparent frameworks and timelines is frustrating the travel industry. Travellers are uninspired by the prospect of holidaying for at least 7 days on a single island – which is contrary to Thailand’s island-hopping tradition.

 Thailand’s reopening mis-steps may benefit ‘second movers’ in the region. Malaysia, which has rapidly accelerated its vaccine programme, could be a dark horse to watch closely.

 South East Asia’s race to revive travel economies will intensify. Countries that simplify their entry requirements and present them clearly could gain a vital advantage.

 Quarantines are a pivotal issue. It is abundantly clear that tourists will not endure quarantine for a leisure trip, so reducing the period on incarceration is meaningless. To eliminate quarantines, governments must hit their own vaccine thresholds and place trust in fast, accurate testing for COVID-19.

 This, of course, presages the gigantic elephant in the airport lounge: vaccine passports.

 Although the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is sometimes (erroneously) compared to the European Union, it does not have supranational institutions that compel member states to adhere to laws.

In Europe, this was vital for recognising each country’s vaccine approvals and reopening borders for the 2021 summer travel season.

 In South East Asia, the 10 governments have managed all aspects of the pandemic entirely independently, and only now are they negotiating mutual recognition of vaccine apps.

 The challenges are immense. Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, for example, are each currently administering seven different vaccines.

 And finally, destinations must coax domestic and international tourists to co-exist.

This will be no easy task. In recent months, the impact of the Delta variant saw domestic travel curtailed in, among others, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tourists on Penang Hill take in views across the city/ photo wikimedia

Importing travellers before local tourists are able to hit their own roads again would seem unfair and divisive.

 This has, hitherto, been the situation for the Phuket Sandbox, which is now readying to end its exclusion of vaccinated domestic tourists.

 Elsewhere in the region, the domestic versus inbound debate is highly pertinent. In 2019, Bali, Phu Quoc and Langkawi all attracted more resident than foreign tourists.

 What happens next is hard to predict. Government mindsets notably have shifted towards the economic imperative of restoring travel. But rhetoric and reality are yet to be matched.

 So for now, the ‘book-and-fly culture’ once enjoyed from Bali to Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap remains a distant yearning.


Asia Media Centre