Southeast Asia was a shining star in the tourism firmament until 2020. Will 2021 be the year of a revival for the region? Much will hang on the willingness of local governments to act swiftly.

In 2019, Southeast Asian countries were among the most popular travel destinations in the world, thanks partly to efficient marketing campaigns. Thailand, with its almost 40 million of international tourists was the 9th most popular international travel destination. Malaysia ranked 14 with 26.5 million arrivals, Indonesia ranked 24 with 16.5 million international arrivals, closely followed by Vietnam (ranked 26 with 15.5 million) and Singapore (ranked 27 with 15 million).

Coordinated action essential in reopening of borders in Southeast Asia

Like the rest of the planet, the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on Southeast Asian tourism. According to the latest UNWTO data, Asia-Pacific, the first region to suffer the impact of the pandemic and the one with the highest level of travel restrictions to date, saw an 82% decrease in arrivals in the first ten months of 2020. Southeast Asia was not better off: Thailand ended 2020 with only 6.7 million international visitors; Vietnam recorded only 3.8 million international visitors, down 78% over 2019 while Indonesia estimates that total arrivals will be back to a level seen 20 years ago.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been largely absent in terms of coordinating a common policy for opening borders or allowing international travel. As a consequence, individual countries in Southeast Asia promoted their own policy for reopening to foreign travellers.

Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam shut down completely to foreign arrivals, suspending international flights over most of 2020. Thailand implemented a careful policy of reopening to international visitors. However, extremely stringent financial conditions and an expensive quarantine acted as a deterrent to most travellers.

At the end of the year, Thailand acknowledged the failure of its scheme and started to relax its rules. The Kingdom again provides free visas to citizens from over 100 countries. Cambodia is also open to all, but financial conditions – such as a deposit – remain an obstacle. Singapore started a careful reopening in the last quarter of 2020, implementing “green travel corridors” or “travel bubbles” with selected countries.

 Tourism accounts for 20% of Thailand’s GDP. Reopening borders quickly will be crucial to the Kingdom’s prosperity (Photo: Ayutthaya).

Reviving tourism is necessary to protect ASEAN from economic collapse in 2021

The return of travellers to Southeast Asia will then not only depend on their eventual vaccination, but also of the willingness of governments to quickly reopen their doors to foreign travellers.

The rapid collapse of economies in some ASEAN countries will certainly be a strong motivation for action. A second year of general lock-down across the region and heavy quarantine rules will, of course, drive more people back into poverty as tourism is an invaluable contributor to local wealth.

According to data from the World Tourism and Travel Council, tourism accounted for 12% of Southeast Asia’s GDP – compared to 9.1% in Europe. In Cambodia, tourism represents 26.5% of the country’s GDP. In the Philippines, travel and tourism reached 25% of the GDP, while in Thailand, this share reaches almost 20%.

Singapore or Thailand are again talking of implementing travel bubbles during the first quarter of 2021. Both countries put all their hopes into a quick return of the powerful Chinese market. In 2019, China represented the largest single market for ASEAN with 33 million travellers. Intra-ASEAN travel are also likely to be favoured by locals looking for short-haul holidays.

For overseas markets, the generalisation of vaccines will certainly help in seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in the second half of 2021. Southeast Asian countries may well open back to foreign travellers with a vaccine certificate or with a future “green health passport”. This being the case, 2021 is likely to turn into a year of normalisation for tourism for Southeast Asia.

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