COVID-19: Will European tourists return to Southeast Asia?

No wonder Southeast Asia is now in a hurry to welcome tourists again: in 2019, the sector was worth $ 393 billion (340 billion euros) for the regional economy. For countries like Cambodia and Thailand, tourism accounted for around one-third and one-fifth of their total GDP, respectively.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard. The region welcomed 143 million tourists in 2019, but that figure collapsed 81% last year, dropping to just 26.1 million visitors, mostly from neighboring states, according to data from the bloc of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

To what extent do European tourists take the attention of Southeast Asia into account in welcoming returning tourists is another question.

In 2019, the UK accounted for the 13th largest share of inbound tourists to the region, with 3.1 million UK travelers visiting South East Asia. Some 2.1 million Germans and 2 million French also visited the region, according to ASEAN data.

However, Europeans, excluding Russians, made up only 5.9% of the 143 million tourists who visited Southeast Asia in 2019. This figure was down from 6.4% in 2015 and 7.8% in 2010.

Europeans “just don’t bring much money”

Frederick Kliem, a researcher and lecturer at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said he did not believe European tourists would be key to considerations of Southeast Asian tourism industries.

“Europeans will always travel and always be welcome – they just don’t add much money to overall tourism revenues,” he said.

Buddhist monks wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) donate food and other essentials to vulnerable people whose livelihoods have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, on September 18, 2021 (Reuters)

Thailand launched a so-called sandbox program in Phuket, its most popular beach island, in July. Since early October, Thailand has halved the quarantine period for fully bitten visitors to seven days. Bangkok, the Thai capital, including five other tourist destinations, will reopen its doors to sandbox programs from November. Most other areas will open in December.

Vietnam wants to open Phu Quoc Island as a sandbox system from next month. Cambodia, which has the second highest vaccination rate in the region, hopes to welcome tourists again by the end of the year.

Malaysia and the Philippines are also looking for ways to revive vital parts of their economies, although Kuala Lumpur’s new tourism stimulus package has focused on domestic tourism first.

“Before the pandemic hit, inbound arrivals to Southeast Asia were mostly from Asian countries,” noted a spokesperson for the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), an industry body.

Chinese accounted for 21% of all inbound tourists to the region, Singaporeans 10% and South Koreans 7%. In 2010, only 5.4 million Chinese visited the region. In 2019, it stood at around 32 million, according to official data.

Chinese nationals essential for tourism

However, the difficult question for managers and businesses in Southeast Asia is whether what was true in 2019 will be true in the years to come.

In May, the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted that China will have vaccinated 60% of its population by the second quarter of 2022, but quarantine requirements for returning tourists will not be relaxed until the end of 2022, first from Hong Kong and Macao, then in 2023 for people traveling from other countries. He expected outbound tourism from China to return to pre-pandemic levels in early 2024.

A man wearing a face mask to protect himself from Covid-19 rests on a bench on a tourist shopping street in Beijing. (PA)

This is a big problem for the economies of Southeast Asia. Thailand, for example, saw the number of Chinese tourists drop 88.6% in 2020 compared to the previous year. According to the UN World Tourism Organization, Chinese tourists spent $ 254.6 billion overseas in 2019, which is about a fifth of global tourism spending.

New Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob last month received mixed reviews after arguing that ASEAN should create a “travel bubble” with China for fully vaccinated tourists. “By doing this, we will be in a much better position to revive not only the tourism industry, but also our people-to-people connectivity,” he said.

Some analysts, however, say it is premature to talk about returning Southeast Asian tourism sectors to pre-pandemic standards.

“Tourism as we know it is not coming back,” Kliem said. “What will now always be required is a full vaccination, including boosters and follow-up apps. Neither Singapore nor Malaysia will ever abandon these requirements again,” he added.

“The easy and virtually unrestricted travel that we are used to will never come back to the same degree. New permanent regulations will make it much heavier and more expensive, ”he said.

It will be a concern for Chinese tourists. The Economist Intelligence Unit report noted that they “will be drawn to countries they consider safe and which offer an easy visa application process.”

Opening a trip without quarantine could be the key

If Chinese tourists cannot return en masse for several years, governments and industry bodies in Southeast Asia should pay attention to previously smaller tourism markets, analysts said.

Steven Schipani, the senior tourism industry specialist for the Southeast Asia Regional Department of the Asian Development Bank, noted that the pandemic has shown the importance of market diversification.

“Southeast Asian countries will redouble their efforts to attract visitors from various source markets, including those in Europe,” he added.

“The region is an incredibly popular long-haul destination for European travelers, so opening borders to Europeans is essential,” the WTTC spokesman said, adding that Europe is recovering faster than many. other areas due to its high vaccination rate and recently relaxed travel. restrictions.

In August, Singapore opened its first non-quarantine travel program for those vaccinated with Germany, while the city-state this week opened Vaccinated Travel Routes (VTL) with France, Italy, the Spain and the United Kingdom, allowing travel without quarantine.

Are some countries opening too early?

The measures have raised fears that Southeast Asian countries will reopen to tourists too soon. A big problem is vaccine inequality, said Abhishek Rimal, Asia-Pacific health emergencies coordinator at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

While Singapore and Cambodia have fully vaccinated about 80% and 66% of their populations, respectively, less than a quarter of people in Indonesia and the Philippines have been vaccinated. Meanwhile, Thailand, the country most dependent on tourism, has only fully vaccinated a third of its population.

“There is a critical balance that unfolds every day in Asia between devastating infection rates and death tolls, and the enormous impact this pandemic is having on casual labor and daily wage earners, including including many that depend on the income or flow of the tourism industry, ”said Rimal.