Countries in South-East Asia are racing to reopen their borders as the tourist season descends.
First off the block was Thailand, which in July fashioned a sandbox scheme that allowed quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated foreign visitors to the popular resort island of Phuket.
The moderate success of the scheme, which the Thai authorities said resulted in over 70,000 arrivals spending 2.14bil baht (RM264mil) on the island, spurred the authorities into taking the next big step.
From tomorrow, vaccinated travellers entering the kingdom by plane from 46 countries and territories will not have to undergo quarantine.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of announcements and activity in South-East Asia, with several countries loosening or removing quarantine measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this month, Indonesia reopened its popular resort island of Bali to international visitors, and Vietnam and Cambodia are planning similar moves.
Tourism has been a key economic driver in the region.
More than 130 million international visitors were reported prior to the pandemic and 42 million jobs depended on the sector, said Steven Schipani, principal tourism industry specialist with the Asian Development Bank’s South-East Asia department. The region also saw close to one billion domestic trips annually then.
“Overall, travel and tourism comprised an estimated 12.1% of South-East Asia’s gross domestic product and was a major source of foreign exchange,” he said.
This amounted to over US$380bil (RM1.5 trillion) in 2019, and also explains the “sudden rush” by nations to reopen during this season, said travel consultancy Pear Anderson founding partner Hannah Pearson.
“All countries have been keeping an eye on one another’s moves, and many tourism ministers have noted that they don’t want to be left behind their Asean peers,” she said, adding that there is a sense of urgency to salvage what is left of the year.
Travel analyst Gary Bowerman, who is based in Kuala Lumpur and is the director of Check-in Asia, noted that the year-end peak season for the region is targeted at travellers from Western countries, where winter has begun.
“But the main reason is that we got hit by the Delta variant for most of 2021, and vaccinations have taken some time to gain momentum,” he said.
Initial delays and supply shortages in vaccine drives also caused some nations to lag behind in reopening plans, said Bowerman.
This included Thailand, which earlier this year channelled vaccines to Phuket for the island’s reopening, but fell short in providing jabs for the rest of the country.
The situation has improved in recent months, but still, only around 42% of the population are fully vaccinated.
Cambodia, too, has jump-started its vaccination programme and about 80% of its population are now fully vaccinated. This has set the foundation for a tourism reboot.
Cambodia will start with quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated foreign tourists to two seaside provinces at the end of next month.
Singapore, which has one of the world’s highest inoculation rates, with more than 80% of the population fully vaccinated, has adopted a Vaccinated Travel Lane scheme, which allows quarantine-free travel with select countries.
There are now 11 such lanes, with the most recent additions being Australia and Switzerland. — The Straits Times/ANN