BANGKOK – Thailand made a bet in July by opening up the resort island of Phuket to vaccinated foreign tourists as the region reeled from an upsurge in Covid-19 infections. It paid off.
As of Wednesday (September 29), the vacation without quarantine program had attracted 38,289 international arrivals, of which only 0.3% tested positive for the virus.
The program generated revenues of 1.63 billion baht (S $ 65.7 million) from July to August.
While that may be a drop in the bucket compared to the 470 billion baht earned in 2019 before the pandemic, the Phuket Sandbox is spawning similar agendas elsewhere as lockdown-weary economies try to find safe ways to restart their tourism industries. .
Neighboring Vietnam hopes to do the same with the southern resort island of Phu Quoc, where all residents are expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month.
As part of the trial, vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries and regions like the United States, Australia and Europe would be allowed to return in phases, starting with chartered flights from November 20.
They will stay at approved resorts and venture to selected destinations with their travel agencies, to snorkel, play golf, take a cable car over the water and see how the island’s famous pearls are cultivated.
Unlike Phuket, where travelers are allowed to venture anywhere in Thailand after vacationing on the island for 14 days, visitors to Phu Quoc will spend their entire vacation there.
Indonesia is also considering “small steps” towards reopening Bali to foreign travelers after several false starts.
His tentative plan is to confine them to the island’s “safe zones” at Nusa Dua, Ubud and Sanur.
In Malaysia, Langkawi Island opened on September 16 to vaccinated domestic vacationers from the mainland.
Nineteen months after the start of the pandemic, policymakers trying to revive a travel industry and related industries, which have lost an estimated 2.4 trillion US dollars (3.3 trillion Singaporean dollars) globally. last year, trying to strike the right balance between competing demands: What restrictions are travelers willing to tolerate for vacations? What kind of hygiene standards make them comfortable? What level of risk are residents willing to accept in order to save their livelihoods?
Significantly, the momentum to restart international tourism is accelerating even though only three of the 10 Asean countries have fully immunized the majority of their population.
A common thread running through these tests is self-contained destinations like islands, where access can be easily controlled and any potential outbreaks confined to a locale.
âEveryone continues to learn,â says Ms. Sarah Mathews, who heads Asia-Pacific media partnerships on the Tripadvisor travel platform.
âI like the idea of ââa sandbox. I don’t think they’re permanentâ¦ The sandbox is a great way to help governments as well as businesses learn, âIs this working well? Or “Actually, we don’t really need that, we can see consumers are really comfortable.”
One thing is certain: the demand for travel is enormous. Tripadvisor data released on September 22 reveals Singaporeans are determined to make up for travel time lost during the pandemic, with New York, London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Bangkok and Munich being the most popular international destinations they’ve been looking for.
“If the history of tourism since World War II has taught us anything, it’s that tourism always explodes after crises,” explains Dr Nuno Ribeiro, senior lecturer at RMIT University in Vietnam.
“The same will happen once the pandemic is brought under control or the world learns to live with it, much like we do with other illnesses such as the flu.”
But domestic travel will continue to be the ballast for regional tourism industries in the near term.
In Bali, for example, domestic arrivals of around 6,000 a day help keep smaller hotels afloat.
Already there are signs that life is starting to return to Bali’s beaches.
Nearly half of tourism experts recently surveyed by the United Nations World Tourism Organization do not expect international tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or later.
According to its Tourism Recovery Tracker, 82% of borders in Southeast Asia remained closed as of June.
In the meantime, fierce price competition is likely to ensue, as an industry known for its high fixed costs will hunt less tourist dollars, Dr Ribeiro said.
Vietnam, slowly emerging from a crippling lockdown at its southern manufacturing hubs, is just the latest country in the region to embrace the idea that it’s better to reopen the country with caution than simply chasing zero infections.
Mr. Bui Quoc Thai, director of the tourism department of Kien Giang province, where Phu Quoc is located, told the Straits Times: âAfter several attempts to stop the epidemic and reactivate tourism, the private and public sectors have learned their lessons. Now is the time for tourism and other industries to consider “living with the pandemic”, fighting the pandemic while growing the economy at the same time. “
Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet Tours has seen its workforce drop from 150 to 30 due to the pandemic.
Its director, Mr. Nguyen Van My, sees the reopening of Phu Quoc as a warm-up to the main tourist season at the beginning of next year during Tet, which coincides with the Chinese New Year.
“Phu Quoc has been closed for a whole year – its facilities need to be repaired, cleaned or improved to serve tourists. There is a lot to do before the opening,” he told ST.
“This pandemic is dangerous, but if we continue to wait for it to end, we will die of the economic crisis first.”
But the lull before the full reopening of borders also gives policymakers a break to make their tourism policies more sustainable.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve really scaled down this mass-produced, economy-of-scale product. The only way it could work was that every year more people had to come, and it was getting cheaper and cheaper,” explains Dr Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Griffith University in Australia.
âNow this is the chance to go back. Because if you only have half the number of people but everyone spends twice as much, you have the same income but a lot less churn or downgrade. your community and your environment. “
Another benefit of current travel controls is that tourists are now willing to invest more in their travel, she says.
âNo one is jumping on the plane right now just for the fun of it,â she said. âSo if you are traveling you really want a quality vacation. And I think people are willing to pay more. They want to have more authentic experiences. They really want it to be worth it.
âThere is potential for every destination to develop better products. “
- Additional reporting by Pham Lan Phuong and Jeffrey Hutton