Safe and healthy travel priority

All Thais are at peace and looking forward to Wednesday when the five-day Songkran holiday begins. This will be the first time in three years that we celebrate the traditional New Year known as sprinkling of cheerful water at the hottest time of the year.

But the festivities this year will be shorter than they were before the emergence of Covid-19. Traditional ceremonies such as pouring water over Buddhist statues or at the hands of elderly people will be allowed. People will also be able to splash out to each other in managed environments that are considered Covid-free. However, it is a welcome opportunity to return home to visit relatives or embark on a trip in Thailand or abroad.

The festivities come at a time when most Southeast Asian economies are gradually removing travel restrictions. Malaysia this month fully reopened to foreign tourists after two years as it moved to treat Covid as an endemic disease.

Malaysia still requires a negative PCR test to be performed within 48 hours of a visitor leaving their home country. But the land border between Malaysia and Singapore has now fully reopened.

The reopening allows family and friends to meet again and also alleviates a shortage of much-needed foreign labor. The Malaysian government expects 2 million tourists to visit the country before the end of the year, which translates to more than $2 billion in revenue. It welcomed 26.1 million tourists in 2019, so it still has a way to recover.

Also from 1 April, Singapore began to welcome all fully vaccinated travelers, removing all existing Vaccinated Travel Corridors (VTL) and unilateral opening arrangements. It also raised its stakes on daily access numbers, nine months after the government drew up a roadmap towards coexistence with Covid-19.

The city-state hopes air passenger volume will reach half of pre-pandemic levels by the end of this year. It has committed S$500 million (US$370 million) to support airlines and staff as air travel recovers.

The Philippines began accepting tourists from 157 countries without a visa in February. It is considering opening its borders to all foreign tourists this month, pending a negative antigen test result 24 hours before the flight. Currently, a negative PCR test is required at least 48 hours in advance.

The Philippines recorded 8.26 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2019, but domestic tourism was the main source of revenue with 110 million trips made.

Hong Kong has also started allowing travelers from nine countries including the US, UK, France and India to enter from April. Almost all inbound travel in recent months has been for family visits or out of necessity. Recreation visitors remained close to zero.

Meanwhile, South Korea aims to add hundreds of international flights per week starting in May. About 100 of these trips will be to destinations such as the US, Europe, Thailand and Singapore, where quarantine and visa-free entry waivers can be made. Only 420 internationals per week currently serve South Korea, down from 4,714 before the pandemic.

Japan remains more cautious, having recently reopened its doors to foreign students, academics and workers. Last Friday it lifted the ban on non-resident foreign nationals from 106 countries, but tourists were not included, and a cap of 10,000 foreign arrivals per day – up from 7,000 earlier – was set.

In ASEAN, only three out of 10 members – Brunei, Laos and Myanmar – clung to strict restrictions on international arrivals as Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam welcome foreign tourists.

The pandemic has hit the international travel industry in ASEAN in particular. Total international travel expenditures from ASEAN-6 countries fell to $24.83 billion in 2020 and rose to just $38.55 billion in 2021. A recovery to pre-pandemic levels is not likely until 2024, the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts.

And now the Russo-Ukrainian war, sanctions against Russia and restrictions on airspace could derail the fragile and long-awaited recovery of tourism in the region.

Russians have become the largest and most spending group of visitors to many major destinations during the pandemic, displacing Chinese unable to travel due to their country’s strict border controls.

With uncertainties still hanging over the path to the sector’s recovery, the tourism-dependent Southeast Asian economies are likely to increasingly open their borders. With the increase in vaccination rates, cooperation between local authorities and tourism companies is essential to resume tourism safely and responsibly in a way that helps build trust between local and foreign consumers. For travelers, stick to health and safety requirements and avoid crowded destinations to protect yourselves.

I wish you all a happy Songkran. Stay safe everyone.

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