There’s no time to lose for ASEAN to come together and forge a border reopening path from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has deeply cut across the region’s travel and tourism sectors for the past year.
If governments wait until the pandemic runs its course or until herd immunity is achieved with mass inoculation, Southeast Asia’s travel and tourism industry – which contributed US$380 billion and employed 42.3 million people in 2019 – would risk suffering a catastrophic collapse, according to a statement issued by ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA).
Not only would that translate to a significant loss of travel industry talent and manpower built up during the pre-pandemic years, a demise of the tourism sector and its related jobs would also prolong and worsen the socio-economic fallouts in the region, warned the association body comprising both public and private tourism sector organisations from ASEAN.
With Covid-19 vaccination now underway in most countries of Southeast Asia, it is hence crucial that governments begin to implement common frameworks for cross-border travel, standard operating procedures for the whole tourism ecosystem, and guidelines on testing and vaccination across Southeast Asia.
“As we’re already in the month of February, ASEAN should aim to kickstart efforts to restart travel and tourism by Q1 or latest Q2, taking a step-by-step approach to reopen borders,” Mingkwan Metmowlee, president of ASEANTA, told Travel Weekly Asia.
By Q4, this will give Southeast Asia's governments around six months to monitor the progress of these efforts in order to facilitate resumption of wider types of travel — business, leisure and VFR — in accordance with the ASEAN Travel Corridor framework, she added.
What ASEANTA recommends
In view of the different pandemic situations and trajectories among ASEAN member countries, what ASEANTA is advocating is a phased approach to resume travel, beginning with controlled travel built upon common region-wide standards. The association is not, she stressed, seeking an immediate reopening of the borders that will open the floodgates to all kinds of travel.
In the region, Mingkwan references the “Singapore model” as a leading example of how clearly defined border measures for foreign visitors — e.g. proof of pre-arrival negative PCR tests, submission of entire itinerary to the authorities, in-destination transfers using private transport, and use of health tracking apps and health passports — can be replicated and integrated at the regional level.
Countries such as Singapore and Vietnam where the pandemic is generally under control could also possibly move forward with travel bubble plans by Q2, while cities, instead of countries, could be paired up for such bilateral agreements, she suggested. This way, successful examples can set a precedent for other country or city bubbles to emerge in the region.
There’s already ample work done with each country, said Mingkwan, pointing to the many hygiene certification and tracing apps already in place across several Southeast Asia – including Thailand’s SHA and Mor Chana, Singapore’s SG Clean and TraceTogether, Malaysia’s Clean & Safe and MyTrace, Indonesia’s Indonesia Care and PeduliLindungi, and the Philippines’ StaySafe.
What’s needed is a move to integrate the existing health declaration apps under an ASEAN Health Passport, so that information can be shared and accessed in a manner not unlike IATA’s Travel Pass.
Crucially, a regional integration approach will determine the speed of recovery for Southeast Asia.
“If we don’t start work today, the devastating impacts of Covid-19 will be further magnified. Each country can of course roll out efforts on their own, but if we want to accelerate recovery ASEAN has to link arms and cooperate together to have common standards,” said Mingkwan. “Otherwise, what’s the use of all these ASEAN meetings if we don’t dare to take steps forward?
“Governments see the big picture but we private sector players also see problems and issues at the micro level. The private sector is more than ready to cooperate and collaborate with the government to make things happen,” she stressed.