Opinion

Asia's Quest to Reopen Travel


It’s not only New Zealanders and Australians that have been closely monitoring the protracted progress of the Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble. Since the concept was first discussed in April 2020 by Prime Ministers Ardern and Morrison, all of Asia has been watching intently. Tourism analyst Gary Bowerman has the latest from Kuala Lumpur. 

With borders largely closed since March 2020, Asian travellers remain grounded while the tourism, airline and hospitality firms continue to suffer crippling losses.

Sectors aligned to travel, such as retail, hospitality, transport, theme parks and World Heritage sites, currently rely on income generated by domestic tourists during weekends and public holidays.

Indirect tax revenues for governments have been heavily reduced.  

Against this economic backdrop, the resurgent volatility of Covid-19 in several Asian countries plus slow vaccine rollouts make it difficult to pinpoint where, and when, a travel recovery could commence.

Things looked more hopeful back in October 2020. One day before the one-way, quarantine-free travel corridor from New Zealand to Australia was opened on 16 October, Singapore and Hong Kong unveiled their own bilateral travel bubble plan.

The announcement stimulated a wave of hype about similar bubbles opening up across Asia. A piecemeal resurrection of travel seemed viable after months of shuttered borders.

Sadly, it didn’t happen. The Singapore-Hong Kong Air Travel Bubble burst the day before its scheduled take-off on 22 November.

The anti-climax sent governments, travellers and tourism providers into hibernation for a difficult Northern Hemisphere winter of new Covid-19 waves.

A realisation crystallised across Asia that vaccine programmes alongside PCR Covid testing would be the only plausible catalyst for a travel recovery in 2021.

But the first quarter of 2021 didn’t quite go to plan.

Japan’s decision to prohibit inbound travel for this summer’s delayed Tokyo Olympics further eroded fragile confidence in the region. Meanwhile, Covid-19 vaccine supply bottlenecks hindered inoculation campaigns. Thus far, only Singapore (9.4), Indonesia (2.05) and India (1.05) rank in the global top 20 nations for full vaccinations per 100 people*.

Now, as Australians and New Zealanders enter the Travel Bubble era, Singapore and Hong Kong are in advanced negotiations for a second attempt.

Similarly to the Trans-Tasman format, the Singapore-Hong Kong bubble was predicated on removing the mandatory 14-day quarantine, which acts as a significant obstacle to travel.

However, strict limits applied to the number of weekly flights – and travellers.

This time, a re-floated bubble will – at the behest of Hong Kong – require travellers, at least from Hong Kong, to be vaccinated. Current speculation places mid-May as a launch schedule.

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Singapore's spectacular Gardens by the Bay / photo 123rf

Elsewhere in Asia, two overlapping problems exist for governments that need to revitalise their visitor economies – while simultaneously protecting their citizens.

Firstly, having closed borders on the basis that cross-border mobility is a primary vector of Covid-19 transmission, governments must achieve ‘herd immunity’ before unlocking the airport gates.

This threshold is widely quoted as a minimum of 70 percent of the population.

Meeting this goal is challenged by global vaccine supply turmoil and huge populations.

Even with supplies from their own domestic vaccine manufacturers, inoculating 70 percent of the 1.4 billion populations of China or India, or even Indonesia’s 272 million, is a daunting task.

Secondly, reopening to international travel is only part of the puzzle.

Destinations need to be able to attract visitors from outbound source markets.

This is tricky while many countries in Asia continue to either prohibit overseas travel or enforce a quarantine for residents re-entering the country.

Singapore is a prime case study. With regard to inbound travel, Singapore has, since 21 August 2020, issued a “standing invitation” to visitors from five ‘low-risk’ countries, Australia, Brunei, China, New Zealand and Taiwan. An agreement with Vietnam is currently suspended. 

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Singapore's deserted Changi Airport in April 2020 / photo Kaie Lee 123rf

Residents from those countries can enter Singapore by applying for an ‘Air Travel Pass’ without a quarantine.

However, the impact has been minimal. Figures released in mid-April show the scheme has delivered just 18,200 visitors to Singapore.

In the outbound sphere, Singapore is being lobbied by Indonesia to permit its residents to visit two islands, Batam and Bintan, under strict travel protocols.

Both islands are located close to Singapore and were short-break retreats before the pandemic. However, Singapore regularly states that it will only enter travel negotiations with countries that have a similar (ie, very low) incidence of Covid infections. This currently rules out Indonesia.

After more than a year without international travel, economic urgency is forcing the hands of Phuket and Bali. The two island destinations are seeking to restart inbound tourism to stimulate their decimated economies. Phuket set a target date of 1 July for permitting fully vaccinated international travellers to enter without undergoing quarantine. This date may shift given a renewed wave of infections across Thailand. Bali is following a similar strategy and is targeting late July to readmit vaccinated foreign tourists.

Before then, the Thai and Indonesian governments recognise the requirement to vaccinate local residents and tourism workers in both destinations to ensure their safety. This may also result in a delay to the original schedules.

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Bangkok's Khao San Road has been largely deserted by tourists in the past year/ photo Wikimedia Commons

These approaches boast a plausible benefit to governments compared to the bilateral Trans-Tasman bubble. Opening to vaccinated travellers from multiple “low-risk” countries broadens the spectrum of inbound arrivals. It also removes the risk of a country-to-country reopening whereby a spike in cases in one of the nations may result in a postponement of all travel.

As such, both Phuket and Bali are following a similar reopening strategy to island destinations such as Maldives, Seychelles and Sri Lanka.

Maldives is widely admired as the gold standard. The Indian Ocean archipelago nation commenced a phased reopening last July to tourists from any country if they present a negative PCR test. Last week, Maldives announced that all visitors who have received two vaccine doses no longer need a negative PCR test. It will also offer vaccines to tourists.

Since its reopening, Maldives has increased its monthly arrivals. Almost 110,000 visitors arrived in March, pushing first quarter arrivals to 298,000. The top two visitor source markets so far in 2021 are India (23%) and Russia (21%), followed by Ukraine, Germany and Kazakhstan.

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The Ithaa Undersea Restuarant in the Maldives / photo WikiMaldives

The Maldives’ missing link – as is the case across the Asia Pacific – is China. By some distance the number one visitor market to Maldives in 2019, China provided 284,029 visitors. India ranked second with 166,030. Before the pandemic, Maldives estimated that India and China would account for 30 percent of the forecast 2.5 million annual visitors to Maldives by 2023.

Given the size of its outbound market and the proven spending power of its travellers, China is the most coveted comeback market for destinations across Asia, and worldwide.

However, the Chinese government appears in no hurry to reopen its international air gates. When it does so, destinations may find attracting Chinese travellers more challenging than before.

A recent survey by Beijing-based Dragon Trail Research shows that 55 percent of Chinese travellers are ‘unsure’ when they would consider travelling overseas – while 31 percent said they would only choose a destination that had ‘reached herd immunity’ through vaccination.

With China currently out of the travel equation, Asia’s quest to reopen its travel networks continues to falter.

- Asia Media Centre