Government AffairsPhuket eyes long-stay tourists from October, while Singapore will soon permit general travel to New Zealand and Brunei. Bali closes door to foreign tourists for rest of 2020.

Asia's travel reopening plans: Two steps forward, one step back?

Few tourists are likely to visit Phuket if they have to stay in Thailand for a minimum of 30 days, say industry players.
Few tourists are likely to visit Phuket if they have to stay in Thailand for a minimum of 30 days, say industry players. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Hopes of travel bubbles have largely deflated as another week goes by, but governments in Southeast Asia have revealed new cautious steps forward – or some may say backward – with regards to reopening their borders towards international tourism.

Phuket pursues 'safe and sealed' plan

Phuket will open up to foreign visitors from October onwards, announced Thailand tourism authorities last Friday as the government looks to revive a sector that has been severely devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The caveat? Tourists will have to stay in the kingdom for at least 30 days under the new policy, with the first 14 days to be spent in quarantine in a limited vicinity of their hotel and to also test for Covid-19 twice before they can visit other areas, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters.

The Phuket pilot project forms part of TAT's plan to reopen the country and manage the associated risks that come with it, Yuthasak had told local media, acknowledging that keeping the country closed would likely present greater risks for the economy.

Industry players, however, have expressed their uncertainties over the viability of the Phuket travel model.

David Kevan of Chic Locations, a UK-based agency that specialises in Southeast Asia travel, said: "I just do not see it as being workable to all but a few (visitors). Many of our winter clients are repeat travellers to Thailand. They have done Bangkok and the North and are happy to focus on their resort and are willing to compromise their destination freedom, but a 30-day minimum stay is not going to be realistic."

What could possibly work for older clients looking to escape European winter, he suggested, would be a "double your stay at no extra cost" approach.

Kevan elaborated: "You pay for 14 nights on breakfast basis, but the following 14 nights are free. The rooms have zero revenue for the last 14 nights, but in reality that is likely to happen anyway based on current restrictions. The clients are obliged to stay within the resort so make use of the on-site restaurants, bars and incidental services."

All in all, the model that has been put forth by the Thai authorities is simply not enticing to overseas travel markets, expressed Kel Willis, a senior marketing and commercial role with a regional luxury travel company, told Travel Weekly Asia.

"Many markets and overseas agents I have spoken to have said Thailand is no longer on their lists of places to go, especially with quarantines in place and when it will cost so much for alternative state quarantine hotels, which are crazily priced and taking full advantage of the situation in Thailand."

She continued: "Add to the cost is the fact as a destination Phuket doesn’t tick many boxes compared to places like Bali and even Koh Samui, and with so many countries still unable to travel, the traditional markets that used to choose Phuket simply aren’t there."

Willis predicts that Thailand tourism is largely a write-off until "well into 2021", although she is keeping an eye on what other destinations like Indonesia and Malaysia would do next.

"Although there was the official announcement that Bali wouldn’t open on September 11 to foreign tourists, there are talks taking place on bubbles with other ASEAN countries that sound positive," she said.

Singapore allows general travel to Brunei, New Zealand

The travel industry is also keeping any optimism in check following the latest announcement from Singapore that it would permit general travel to Brunei and New Zealand from September onward.

Calling the measure a "very small and cautious step", independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie, in a LinkedIn post, stated: "Singapore lifting travel restrictions for Brunei and New Zealand will unfortunately not generate additional traffic. These are not new leisure travel bubbles as some initial headlines suggested but is a unilateral move by Singapore."

More flights cannot be justified unless Brunei and New Zealand open their borders in the near term, said Sobie. According to him, the Singapore-New Zealand sector had 33 weekly flights before Covid-19 and now have five (four to Auckland and one to Christchurch by Singapore Airlines), while the Singapore-Brunei sector had 19 and now has two (by Royal Brunei Airlines).

"Singapore residents can’t travel to either country, and Brunei/New Zealand residents are only permitted to leave for essential travel. New Zealand residents have to pay for 14 days quarantine at hotels upon returning and slots are limited," he said.

Sobie believes that bilateral travel bubbles still offer the best chances to restart tourism amid current Covid-19 restrictions and challenges, with the Maldives being "a sensible market" for Singapore to establish a green lane with.

"Unlike Brunei or New Zealand, Maldives is already open and has welcomed 5,000 visitors since July 15. Airport Covid testing is available with results in six hours and resorts are willing to be dedicated to Singapore residents to avoid mixing tourists," he wrote.

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