Asia’s 10 Burning Travel Questions in 2021

This selection of Asia’s 10 Burning Travel Questions in 2021 is a snapshot in time.

Even with minimal volumes of international travel in Asia Pacific, the regional landscape is incredibly complex, dynamic and fast-moving.

I will revisit and update the 10 Burning Travel Questions answers every two months through the year.

1) How Quickly Will Vaccines Make a Difference?

Depends on the speed and scale of rollouts, which will rely on supply chains. “The current vaccines are excellent. They will prevent hospitalization, and reduce the healthcare burden, but in 30-40% of cases you may still be able to pass on the infection. However, the next wave of vaccines, which will come later this year, will offer a higher level of sterilising immunity.” Adar Poonawalla, CEO, The Serum Institute.

One of the biggest vaccine makers by volume in the world. CEO Poonawalla’s early bet on the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine candidate during first phase trials appears to have paid off. The institute plans to prioritize distribution in India before providing doses to the COVAX facility, an international initiative aimed at ensuring almost 100 low and middle income economies have access to a vaccine

2) Will Countries Permit Only Vaccinated Travellers to Enter?

Almost certainly, especially in countries where the virus was successfully contained. Australia has hinted at this. Other countries will follow suit. Even so, we should expect slow and gradual re-openings, with the likelihood of capped quotas, reciprocal bubbles and perhaps even exclusive ‘test openings’ for travellers from a specific ‘green zone’ country for the first few months. Borders will not simply “reopen.” The revitalization of travel in Asia Pacific will be carefully phased, and there will inevitably be bumps en rout.

3) Can South East Asian Nations Maintain Low Infection Rates?

The 10 countries of ASEAN count highly diversified rates of COVID containment. The region’s two largest nations, Indonesia and the Philippines, have struggled to contain the virus throughout. Indonesia, in particular is accelerating its vaccine programme.

Recent experiences in Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia show that moving from seeming COVID safety back into tight social restrictions can happen relatively quickly. Pressure on the healthcare system in Malaysia resulted in a State of Emergency being announced in mid-January. Thailand and Myanmar also suffered setbacks after long periods of containment.

Conversely, Vietnam managed to extinguish cluster outbreaks last summer and ensure positive economic growth for 2020. Exceptionally low infection rates endure in Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, and Singapore has contained the spread after months of uncertainty. 

Given the above contexts, reopening the borders to leisure tourists without a stringent vaccine requirement for travellers seems unlikely in any country in the region.

4) Will We See New Patterns of Destination Demand?

Inevitably. We discussed on The South East Asia Travel Show how it would be a mistake for destinations to set 2019 as a baseline or benchmark for future market performance. Much will depend on to where source countries enable their citizens to travel, how often – and how quickly airlines can rebuild their flight networks. The best case forecast from the Pacific Asia Tourism Association (PATA) is for 152.15 million tourism arrivals in 2021, up from 121.84 million in 2020 – but vastly down on 703.35 million in 2019. PATA believes the nearest the region will get to that figure could be 677.03 million visitor arrivals in 2023.

To mitigate this, airlines will continue to improvise with new and more frequent domestic routes incorporating first, second and third-tier destinations. Qantas, for example, said it had inaugurated 20 new domestic routes before Christmas 2020.

In addition, Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO, told Reuters Next in mid-January, “We’ll have to see which markets respond after, and which ones grow fast. One of the things we have learned is that you have to throw out the previous demand models – because demand will find a new home, it will find routes where people want to travel. You will have to try things and see if they work, and if not – move on.

5) Should Travellers Expect to Pay More for the Privilege in Future?

The incremental costs of travel are starting to become apparent. In January 20201, Singapore announced an SGD30,000 COVID-19 insurance minimum threshold for visitors, and Thailand said it will now mandate a new THB300 Tourism Fee for foreign arrivals.

These additional COVID-era ancillary costs to be borne by travellers were signposted in 2020. 

Last June, Cambodia said it would require a USD3000 on-arrival deposit made at the airport to cover medical fees (and even funeral costs). Later in the year, Thailand unveiled its Special Tourist Visa, which included a raft of application charges. At least two pre- and post-flight COVID-19 tests needed to be pre-purchased for travellers wanting to be a part of the Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble? 

We may also see travellers paying for their own inoculation to speed up the process of getting back in the air.

Whenever, and however, travel and tourism starts to crank back up in Asia Pacific, the incremental costs and fees may be stated upfront – rather than embedded in the fine print. So the next question is, what does that mean for the era of visa-free and visa on-arrival access we once enjoyed? Is that gone forever, or just for a transitional period?

6) Will Low-cost Carriers Lead the Renewal in South East Asia?

Yes, without question. Not only independent carriers like AirAsia and Lion Air, should they both emerge intact, and the extremely ambitious Vietjet – but also low-cost and hybrid subsidiaries on legacy carriers, like Singapore Airlines’ Scoot and Malaysia Airlines’ Firefly. It would not be a surprise to see new joint-venture LCCs.

7) Will the 2021 Tokyo Olympics Take Place?

The signs aren’t good. In mid-January, Japan implemented a State of Emergency in Greater Tokyo. More prefectures have since been included as the Winter Wave of infections worsens. The Go To Travel subsidy campaign to stimulate more domestic tourism was postponed, and all foreign visitors banned temporarily from entering the country. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were officially delayed for one year on 24 March 2020, so there is still time.

However, Japan has said it will meticulously scrutinize the vaccines it has purchased before commencing its national programme.  Japan’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is a strong advocate of the tourism sector and has committed to hosting the games in this summer. 

Among Asia’a 10 burning travel questions in 2021, this appears the most fragile.

8) When Will Chinese Travellers Head Overseas Once More?

Depends on the speed of China’s vaccine rollout. As a producer of COVID-19 vaccines – with one, Sinovac already approved and a handful of others being tested – China has an immense supply chain advantage. It will also prioritise domestic vaccinations while also exporting its vaccines – including what it describes as “domestic and international travel hubs” However, with a target of 50 million vaccinations before Chinese New Year, that only really scratches the surface. Domestic travel is also being discouraged during the mass annual migration of Spring Festival, which is recognized as the coldest day of the year in China.

Potentially primed for a reboot later in 2020, Chinese outbound tourism will rely on a safer, more secure Spring and a rapid implementation of vaccines. When it does occur, it is likely to be for selected markets and or charter groups for a trial period

9) Could Cruise Travel Confound Expectations?

Quite possibly. The reputation of cruising took a huge hit, especially from the so-called Plague Ships, such as Ruby Princess in Sydney and Diamond Princess in Yokohama, in the early months of COVID-19. However, cruising retains a highly loyal following, and cruise lines have invested heavily in onboard medical facilities. Recent cruise-to-nowhere sailings in Singapore proved popular, and a positive test scare onboard one of the ships was swiftly and effectively managed. It is highly likely that cruise lines will require passengers to be vaccinated, which may delay its renaissance, but it will occur for sure.

10) Why Haven’t Other Asian Destinations Been Able to Replicate the Maldives’ Model?

Stay tuned for the next update for Asia’s 10 Burning Travel Questions in 2021 in mid-March. How different will be the outlook by then?

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