20 for 2020: Asia’s Defining Travel Events

Aeroplane with sunset

What were Asia’s defining travel events in 2020?

Asia Pacific enjoyed sustained growth in travel and tourism across the 2010s. And for many countries, 2020 (well, January and early February) actually began strongly. Expectations were high of another record year for air travellers and inbound arrivals.

And then the pandemic struck.

For tourism policymakers, airlines, hoteliers, tour operators, travel agents and travel consumers, 2020 will be remembered as a destructive year. The implications will be felt long into the future.

So, here’s a detailed round-up of Asia’s defining travel moments of 2020.

1) Chinese Tourists Stay Locked Out

Since 2010, China has become the fulcrum of international travel growth. In 2019, around 155 million outbound trips were made, up from 57.4 million in 2010. Although annual growth had slowed, Chinese tourists continued to boost visitor economies on every continent. The coronavirus outbreak in China coincided with around 7 million mainland holidaymakers preparing to head overseas for the Chinese New Year holiday. Few made the trip. On 24 January, China banned travel agencies from selling domestic and outbound tours. On 26 March, China formally shut its borders. 

China, the world’s largest travel market, remains locked out of the global travel ecosystem. Of Asia’s defining travel events of 2020, this could have the most enduring impact.

2) IATA Sounds a Strong Warning

Even before airlines began slashing routes, costs and staff, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned of a tough year ahead. On 6 February, it noted that global air passenger demand rose 4.2% in 2019, down from 7.3% in 2018. This “marked the first year since the global financial crisis in 2009 that passenger demand growth fell below the long-term trend of around 5.5%.” By late November, IATA said international air travel demand in 2020 slumped 89% compared to 2019. 

Airlines worldwide were forecast to lose USD118.5 billion in 2020, with a less spectacular loss of USD38.7 billion predicted for 2021. 

3) New Zealand Decides to “Go Hard, Go Early”

In 2020, New Zealand’s handling of COVID-19 earned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern an easy re-election. Her government rigorously followed scientific advice that “The best way to protect the economy is to fight this virus.” Deciding, to “Go hard and go early,” New Zealand closed its borders and imposed movement restrictions matched with a ‘managed isolation’ programme and a test, track and trace system. It stands as a pragmatic case study of coronavirus risk management.

New Zealand is, however, confronting concerns about re-importing the virus, and will implement new entry rules on 15 January. 

4) Cruise Catastrophe: “The Plague Ships”

The cruise sector signalled an early warning of transmission in enclosed spaces. Two ships in particular made global headlines. Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama Port, Japan, from 3 February to 26 March with 3,711 passengers and crew. Hundreds on board were infected and 13 people subsequently died. It was later described as “the ship that taught epidemiologists crucial lessons.” The second so-called ‘Plague Ship’ was Ruby Princess, which returned to Sydney on 19 March, where hundreds of passengers were allowed to disembark without being tested. Some 28 people died. 

A 4-month official inquiry into the Ruby Princess identified “serious” and “inexplicable” mistakes by Sydney’s health authorities.

5) COVID-19 Becomes a ‘Pandemic’

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation categorised the coronavirus as a pandemic. The global spread of COVID-19 infections was spiralling, with a total of 118,319 cases in 114 countries (including 80,955 in China), and 4,291 deaths. Flight bans, border closures and national lockdowns and hard quarantines were quickly implemented by  governments throughout Asia and worldwide. 

By 31 December 2020, nearly 83 million infections had been recorded globally, with 1.8 million confirmed deaths. 

6) Tokyo’s Olympic Dream is Delayed

Japan’s Olympic bubble burst on 24 March. On that date, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics – due to take place from 24 July-9 August / 24 August-5 September – were postponed until 2021. Japan is estimated to have invested USD15 billion to transform Tokyo’s sporting and travel infrastructure, and was targeting 40 million arrivals in 2020. A new COVID-19 winter wave of infections has badly impacted Japan, and the prospects of hosting the delayed Games in the summer of 2021 appear bleak.

In his New Year address, however, Prime Minister reiterated that enabling the 2021 Tokyo Olympics to go ahead would provide a “symbol of global solidarity.”

For an update on this topic, read Asia’s 10 Burning Travel Questions in 2021

7) Singapore Changi Shuts Half Its Terminals

In 2019, Singapore Changi Airport handled 68.3 million passengers. In January 2020, it posted 5.2% year-on-year passenger growth. It has won the Skytrax World’s Best Airport award for 8 consecutive years. But in February the mass contraction of aviation hit the airport hard. By April, it shuttered Terminal 2 for 18 months, and in May it furloughed the sleek T4. In mid-June, construction of a new T5 was postponed.

In the first 11 months of 2020, Singapore Changi handled 11.6 million passengers, 11.05 million of which were in January-March. Its travails illustrate the steep recovery curve ahead.

8) Birth of Travel Bubbles

Australia and New Zealand jointly bequeathed the term “Travel Bubble”. In late April, Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern said they were planning “a Trans-Tasman travel bubble.” This would enable quarantine-free travel between two neighbouring island nations with strong bilateral travel flows and similar COVID-19 strategies. A surge of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne in June proved disastrous. The travel bubble began on 16 October as one-way only. New Zealand residents were permitted to fly quarantine-free into designated Australian states. Australian residents are still unable to visit New Zealand. 

Hopes emerged in December that a two-way bubble could commence in early 2021. Cluster outbreaks in Sydney, though, have cast renewed doubts.

9) Cambodia’s USD3,000 Travel Deposit

Back in June, Cambodia held an impressive tourism hand. A very low COVID-19 case infection rate and zero deaths encouraged it to make a play as a ‘COVID-safe’ destination. 

Unfortunately, Cambodia made some miscalculations. It relies heavily on Asian inbound markets, all of whom had shut their borders. And then it mandated a USD3,000 deposit for all visitors upon arrival. The government published a list of potential expenses, such as quarantine fees, COVID-19 tests – and funeral costs.

Cambodia had not consulted its travel sector, and a vociferous response resulted in the deposit being reduced, but it stands as a clumsy attempt to reopen for tourism.

10) AirAsia’s Future “In Doubt”

2020 was an unforgiving year for South East Asia’s largest LCC. In July, an audit report highlighted skyrocketing debts, and stated a “material uncertainty related to going concern.” AirAsia reported its largest net loss since 2004. Its share price slumped. Operations in Japan closed, and AirAsia India seemed shaky. AirAsia admits it will be slimmed down in future, and is negotiating new financing, but it launched a new aircraft engineering division, and a ‘SuperApp’.

While 2021 will be another difficult year, AirAsia remains the carrier to watch for signs of a potential recovery in South East Asian air travel. 

11) Domestic Travel Takeover

Across Asia, tourism boards focus on inbound travel. Annual visitor targets drive tourism policy in most countries, with the exception of China – which transformed its outbound and domestic travel sectors. Elsewhere, domestic travel is poorly funded and promoted. Until the 2020 border closures when trips within borders were encouraged to “help boost the economy.” This shift succeeded through simple necessity, but domestic tourists tend to take their trips on weekends and public holidays, and their experience priorities are different.

With an uncertain travel year ahead – and a second consecutive Chinese New Year without Chinese tourists – domestic tour operators in Asia will need to be extra creative.

12) Troubling Outbreaks in Beijing & Danang

It’s tricky to compare COVID-19 impacts because of the volatility of outbreaks, and different national circumstances. But two summer shocks to the system in well-contained countries still reverberate across Asia. The first outbreak occurred in Beijing in June. The epicentre of the pandemic, China had gone 56 days without a local transmission. Similarly, an outbreak among holidaymakers in Danang, Vietnam, after a near-100 day run without a community transmission, incited a national panic.

Although China and Vietnam reacted quickly to shut down the outbreaks, both events rattled consumer confidence, and further delayed the return of cross-border travel.

13) Bali’s Inbound Reopening Postponed 

Since mid-June, Bali had been eager to reopen its tourism-reliant economy. On 31 July, domestic Indonesian tourists were permitted to visit once more. Should this prove successful, 11 September would be the date for international tourists to return. It never happened. Fixed deadlines are tough to manage in a pandemic, and an escalating infection rate after welcoming back domestic visitors forced Indonesia to postpone Bali’s full reopening.

Rumours surfaced in December that Bali was preparing to announce its delayed reopening to inbound travellers. So far, this has not been realised.

14) HKIA Bans ‘Covid-Positive’ KLIA Flights

In September, Hong Kong International Airport banned flights for 2 weeks from Kuala Lumpur International Airport because 5 passengers on a flight tested positive on arrival.

Other temporary bans were issued at Asian airports for positive passenger tests. This problem, which continues to occur, asks serious questions about airport transit controls, and pre-flight testing procedures. Such instances fracture public confidence in air travel.

As more flights are re-introduced, air travellers will want greater assurance. Right now, that isn’t proving possible, and it may require vaccines to solve the situation.

15) “Land of COVID” Spat in South East Asia

Diplomacy took a downward turn in South East Asia in August. Thai media described the Philippines as “Land of COVID” in a story about Filipino teachers arriving to teach at private schools. The Philippine Consul General described the article as “insensitive and unhelpful.” President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson then lashed out at Indonesia as the Philippines overtook it with the largest total of infections in South East Asia. “Because we test more… The Indonesians don’t know exactly how many are sick are out there. At least we do.” 

These skirmishes seem trivial, but Indonesia and Philippines (and now Thailand) are under pressure. Travellers may take pandemic handling into account when choosing a destination.

16)  Maldives Gradually Reopens for Tourism

Few pockets of optimism emerged in 2020, but Maldives was a source of inspiration. The Indian Ocean archipelago gradually reopened to inbound visitors from 15 July onwards. It launched a string of marketing activations in India, and introduced what it claims is the world’s first destination loyalty scheme, called Maldives Border Miles. On 28 December 2020, Maldives recorded its highest daily arrivals total, 6,037, since reopening its borders.

Maldives greeted over 140,000 visitors from 15 July to 30 December, and 550,000 across the full 2020 year – which, although way down on its 2 million target was still impressive.

17) Thailand’s “Special Tourist Visa” Confuses Everyone

Thailand welcomed a record 39.8 million visitors in 2019, and its economy is heavily supported by tourism income. Despite recording one of the first COVID-19 cases outside China, it successfully contained the pandemic for most of 2020. In September, Thai tourism authorities decided to restore travel to Phuket. Long-stay charter travellers would be quarantined for 14 days, tested and confined in a defined area. They would need to stay for 90 days. Then the Phuket Plan transformed into the Special Tourist Visa almost overnight. Instead of Phuket, flights would arrive in Bangkok. The scheme launched with a planeload of travellers from China on 20 October. Thereafter, the project became ever-more opaque. 

With tougher anti-pandemic curbs being issued in 28 Red Zone provinces (including Bangkok), the prospects for the Special Tourist Visa are shrouded in more mystery. 

18)  Asia Awaits India’s On-Hold Travel Rebound 

Although less vaunted than China, India’s outbound market is a vital and fast growing source of visitors for countries across South East Asia, plus Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong. India’s struggles with COVID-19 inevitably damaged its travel sector, but the infection rate has tapered significantly. Domestic aviation is recovering, but international passenger flights remain prohibited until at least 31 January. 

Only China and the US ended 2020 with larger scheduled air capacity than India, and the ability of outbound demand to bounce back is highly anticipated across Asia Pacific. 

19) Bursting the Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble

Announced with a flourish of PR hype on 15 October, the Air Travel Bubble between Asia’s primary air hubs was slated to start on 22 November. Finally, a workable, quarantine-free bilateral bubble appeared feasible. There were strict testing protocols and daily flight quotas, but these were accepted as inevitable outcomes for re-establishing two-way travel. No restrictions would be made on itineraries in either Singapore or Hong Kong, however.

Sadly, a surge of COVID-19 community infections in Hong Kong resulted in a postponement until 2021, with no new date yet to be announced.

20) A Worrying New Winter Wave

New Year 2021 came and went without notable progress for travel in Asia Pacific. As the Winter Wave worsens, stricter movement and border controls are being temporarily implemented across the region, including Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong. The prospects of a more transmissible variant spreading in previously COVID-safe countries is troubling. However, suppression strategies have evolved to identify clusters at source, then rigorously test, trace and isolate to prevent a ‘cluster’ from becoming a ‘wave’. That said,

Hong Kong, continues to report cases for which the origin is unknown or untraceable.

If we didn’t know it before, Asia’s defining travel events of 2020 confirmed that it really had become ‘Vaccine or Bust’ for tourism in the region.

The full ‘20 Events That Defined Travel & Tourism in Asia Pacific in 2020’ article featured in the 3 January 2020 issue of The Asia Travel Re:Set newsletter.

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