Published: 15:10, May 4, 2022 | Updated: 18:40, May 4, 2022
Post-COVID packages take shape as Southeast Asia tourism eyes revival
By Prime Sarmiento in Hong Kong

This undated photo shows people kayaking at the Big Lagoon in El Nido, Palawan. (PHOTO / CHINA DAILY)

Daniw Arrazola is ready to welcome visitors back to her wellness center in Palawan, the southwestern island province of the Philippines renowned for its pristine beach resorts and biodiversity.

Palawan’s tourism industry was hit hard by travel restrictions due to the pandemic in the past two years, but the reopening of the Philippines’ borders to international tourists in February has given new hope to business operators like Arrazola. 

The Filipina entrepreneur is preparing yoga and meditation retreat packages for potential clients. “We will slowly introduce retreats, organize (a few programs) each month,” she said, noting that unlike in the past, her wellness center will not be open throughout the year, as business is still only starting to pick up.

Arrazola is just one of the many travel and tourism industry players in Southeast Asia whose optimism over borders reopening is tempered by the realization that the industry is not returning to its pre-pandemic level anytime soon. 

Tourism industry executives said that while vaccination rollouts and the easing of restrictions may encourage people to travel, it will take some time before the region’s tourism industry can fully recover

Tourism industry executives said that while vaccination rollouts and the easing of restrictions may encourage people to travel, it will take some time before the region’s tourism industry can fully recover. Major sources of tourists to Southeast Asia – like Japan – still have travel restrictions. Also, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has spiked oil and airline ticket prices.

Philippine Tourism Secretary Berna Romulo-Puyat said in a press briefing that over 313,000 foreign tourists have entered the country since the border reopened three months ago. This is still a far cry from the 8.26 million tourists that arrived in 2019, but Puyat remains hopeful that the situation is “slowly getting back to normal”.

In Indonesia, the number of international visitor arrivals declined by 61 percent to 1.56 million in 2021, according to New York-based travel news site Skift. In the first two months of 2022, the number of foreign tourist visits reached 336,000. Skift also noted that the room occupancy rate for star hotels started to increase in early 2022.

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Tourists wearing face masks walk around Wat Pho temple in Bangkok on Feb 24, 2022. (JACK TAYLOR / AFP)

Singapore’s Changi Airport handled 1.14 million passenger movements in March 2022, crossing the one-million mark for the first time since March 2020, according to official data. This, however, is equivalent to about 20 percent of March 2019’s traffic. 

“Our projection is that we will reach maybe 90 percent of the 2019 level (of tourist arrivals) sometime in 2023,” said Fazal Bahardeen, founder and CEO of the Singapore-based Muslim lifestyle and travel consultancy CrescentRating. 

Fazal said that although borders are open, people are not rushing in droves to cross them. This is because while most Southeast Asian countries now allow quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated travelers, this does not make travel preparation any less cumbersome. Even fully vaccinated travelers, before they can travel, have to get tested for COVID-19 and prepare documents to prove that they are not infected with the virus. 

Also, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict driving up oil prices, air fares have increased about 20-30 percent, he said. And this is a major challenge for travelers coming from the United States and Europe.

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most dynamic regional economies and counts the travel and tourism sector as a key contributor to GDP. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the travel and tourism industry accounted for 5 percent of the region’s GDP and created over 32 million jobs across the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In 2019, visitor arrivals to the region hit over 140 million. But the pandemic pushed down the number of arrivals to 26.2 million in 2020, according to data from the ASEAN Secretariat. Thailand, ASEAN’s leading tourist destination, posted only 6.7 million visitor arrivals in 2020, compared to nearly 40 million in 2019. 

According to the ASEAN Secretariat, travel’s share of ASEAN’s total services exports in 2020 was 10.3 percent, making it the fourth-largest contributor. Prior to the pandemic, travel was the top contributor, accounting for 30 percent of services exports.

Putu Winastra, chairman of the Association of the Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies in Bali (ASITA Bali), said that while the Indonesian resort island is open to fully vaccinated travelers, the number of travelers is still limited as only a few airlines are flying to Bali.  

“The air fare is expensive, so tourists will think twice before going to Bali,” he said. He hopes that more international airlines will be coming to Bali soon, creating more competition in air fares.

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Winastra also hopes Bali can attract more tourists from nearby countries in Southeast Asia, and cited inquiries received from Thailand and Malaysia by the association’s members. In fact, he said ASITA Bali is organizing a hybrid travel fair in June – the annual Bali and Beyond Travel Fair – to attract more tourists to Bali and other parts of Indonesia. He said over 100 exhibitors from 29 countries will participate in the event.

Fazal, of CrescentRating, said there is an opportunity now to boost intra-regional travel within ASEAN, given that tourists from China, Japan, Europe and North America are not coming to the region.

“Encouraging intra-ASEAN travel is easier (and cheaper),” he said. Not only can ASEAN travelers journey visa-free around the region, they are already familiar with its countries’ cultures and attractions.

He cited Muslim travelers, noting the region is home to a huge Muslim population and they constitute about 40 percent of intra-ASEAN travelers.

“That’s a considerable number to try and tap into. So that’s a huge opportunity that can be leveraged to accelerate recovery,” Fazal said.