Southeast Asian governments need to make quick decisions on reopening its borders to international travel, or risk killing its high season and an even wider swath of the tourism sector as the Covid-19 crisis drags on.
That was the dire warning sounded by a growing number of travel business leaders, as governments in Southeast Asia are no closer to a firm decision on reopening their borders, some eight months since the global pandemic began.
Asia and in particular Thailand wants to attract the high spenders which is however exactly the segment asking for clarity and security – both attributes that most Asian countries, namely Thailand, cannot give at the moment.
Lifestyle Retreats founder & managing director Jose Luis Calle remarked: “The most important at this stage is strong leadership at the government level to provide clarity: to make decisions on whether they will or not open borders, when and to whom, and in what scheme: whether visa on arrival will be granted to certain countries or maybe visitors might need to apply for visa in advance or simply state tough restrictions in certain cases – as is the case in Cambodia to refrain visitors from entering unless it's essential."
Firm decisions need to be made by this September for tour operators to sell high season packages to Southeast Asia with some certainty, said David Kevan of UK-based tour operator Chic Locations. “If not, we are going to have to say to our clients that ‘there is a very real risk this might not happen, so can we look at alternatives and maybe consider Southeast Asia another year?'“
The lack of clarity on a reopening timeline and outlook is a now “the frustrating point for all people and companies involved in tourism in Asia. They all see their business running away to other destinations because of the situation that hardly any country in Asia can commit to an outlook or timeline,” said Stephan Roemer, CEO of Diethelm Travel Group.
Even if the decision was to keep borders closed for a longer time, what industry players seek is clear and firm statements from the authorities.
Singapore Tourism Board chief executive Keith Tan, in his recent media statements, has explicitly stated that it will be a long while for mass travel to resume and that 1Q 2021 is the earliest for rebound to take place.
Such guidance, even if the associated implications are negative, paints a “helpful and realistic” assessment of the situation, said Kevan. Similarly, the strict but clear stance taken by Cambodia – which requires a high testing fee of U$$3,000, 24 hours of automatic quarantine and an entire flight testing negative before travellers can proceed – offers clarity to clients and allow them to make a decision, he added.
There's demand for Thailand, but how much longer?
In the wake of the pandemic, travel players say there clearly still exists a strong demand from long-haul markets into Southeast Asia, particularly Thailand.
Chic Locations’ Kevan is seeing a huge spike in enquiries for the upcoming winter season, with good demand especially for Phuket and Khao Lak in Thailand, Langkawi in Malaysia and Phu Quoc in Vietnam. However, none of this demand can be converted into firm bookings until these governments make their Covid-19 entry policies more certain and airline schedules are firmed up.
“We have taken deposits so clients’ intentions are clear,” said Kevan, adding that this travel demand is based on anticipated entry requirements and could be subject to change. “Clients are understanding, but I sense their patience is running low.
“If they want alternatives with more certainty, there are options in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean, where the local governments have issued clear guidelines. If clients wait until the various governments in Southeast Asia eventually act, any travel options could have been gone or at best reduced.”
Industry members believe Thailand could take a leaf out of Maldives' book, as the country's July reopening to international travellers has brought some relief to a tourism-reliant economy.
"The Maldives example proves it that there is also a market segment who is prepared to travel spontaneously. The Maldives was able to receive more than 1,100 tourists to their country in the first 10 days of their opening on July 15," Roemer noted.
"Asia and in particular Thailand wants to attract the high spenders which is however exactly the segment asking for clarity and security – both attributes that most Asian countries, namely Thailand, cannot give at the moment," he stated. "The positioning and wishes to attract this segment diverge from the requirements for this kind of clients."
Travel executives believe a clear yet prudent reopening plan can be put into place for Thailand, one that balances health risks with the economic benefits that international tourists can bring.
Ken Scott, managing director of PR consultancy ScottAsia Communications, remarked: "I believe Thailand can and should incrementally open its doors to international tourism again. The numbers that will come will still be small. And Thailand has excellent hygiene measures, medical facilities and capacity in place to deal with any new cases of Covid."
"By keeping international borders closed and killing international tourism the Thai government is unintentionally causing unemployment, personal debt, psychological stress, bank loan defaults, the breakup of families. In short, the end of dreams," Scott said in his impassioned three-minute Youtube video plea made on behalf of the Thailand tourism industry to Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The "slow death of the tourism industry is unnecessary", he continued, as much of harsh Covid impacts that Thailand's tourism business leaders and employees are experiencing are "happening quietly away from public eyes".
It's a situation that the embattled travel industry knows too well amid the pandemic.
"I personally believe that although the economic effects are tangible, the mental distress that lack of certainty creates will have equally disastrous effects in the industry," said Calle.
"As much as we (as employers) try and can do, it’s certainty and honest information what employees and guests need the most at this stage for them to plan ahead and make plans: whether domestic market might be sufficient for now to keep businesses alive, at what level, when would make sense to reopen certain assets or simply shut down for a year for example."