Staycations and weekend getaways: Can domestic travel spark a revival of Southeast Asia’s tourism industry?

Staycations and weekend getaways: Can domestic travel spark a revival of Southeast Asia’s tourism industry?

FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Bangkok
FILE PHOTO: A man walks past the almost deserted Grand Palace which usually is crowded with tourists, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bangkok, Thailand, March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

SINGAPORE: Mentari Primananti, 41, spent last week’s Idul Adha holiday at a resort in Bandung, Indonesia. 

The two nights of accommodation cost around 1 million rupiah (US$68.56), half of what it would usually cost.

“The resort had a great view, a lot of outdoor facilities and activities … We have been staying in our house for months, so it was great to be outdoors,” she recounted.

The housewife also liked the fact that the resort was quiet and they could get there by car.

“We didn’t want to be somewhere crowded or required us to travel by airplanes. This is what matters to me right now when choosing somewhere to go.”

She added: “Actually, I am still afraid of the COVID-19 situation in Indonesia, especially since I have a 68 year-old mother and two young kids. But the offer was too nice to pass.”

Following the first wave of COVID-19 infections and the associated restrictions, governments across the region have launched various stimulus packages in a bid to kick start the domestic tourism industry, even as borders remain shut. Hotels and resorts are also offering attractive deals. 

While there was hope that the travel bug dormant in people would once again be active after the easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the surge in occupancy rates for staycations and weekend getaways was short-lived, said industry players interviewed by CNA.

There may be some bright spots in certain sub-sectors like outdoor tourism – where it is generally believed that the COVID-19 virus would not be lurking. This being said, the tourism market in the region appears to be set for a long road to recovery.

TOURISM INDUSTRY IN THE DOLDRUMS

Tourism receipts used to constitute a substantial portion of ASEAN countries’ income, but that changed as COVID-19 spread across the globe. 

The tourism industry in Thailand, for instance, contributed close to 18 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year. Tourism activities slowed in early 2020, with international tourism receipts contracting by 39 per cent due to a significant drop of foreign tourist arrivals. 

For the first quarter of 2020, a total of 6.69 million foreign tourists arrived in Thailand, indicating a decrease of 38 per cent. The government imposed a lockdown from late March onwards.

In Indonesia, the tourism industry contributed 280 trillion rupiah or 5.5 per cent of the country’s GDP last year. 

About 16.3 million foreigners visited the archipelago in 2019. The Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy recorded 2.6 million of foreign tourists in the first quarter of 2020, but like many other countries, tourist arrivals dropped to almost zero subsequently as the social restrictions were imposed in April. 

Bali's 'Day of Silence' is preceded by street parades
Bali's 'Day of Silence' is preceded by street parades. (Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka)

The economic losses were huge. The Indonesian Hotel and Restaurant Association (PHRI) estimated that the hotel industry and restaurants lost 30 trillion rupiah and 40 trillion rupiah in potential revenue respectively during the pandemic.

It has also affected the livelihoods of around 13 million people working in the industry. PHRI data showed that 95 per cent of employees were forced to take unpaid leave. About 30,000 lost their jobs permanently, particularly those whose contracts expired and were not renewed. 

Malaysia’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture said on Apr 10 that the tourism industry contributed RM86.14 billion (US$20.56 billion) to the economy last year from 26.14 million international tourists.

On Jul 10, Tourism Malaysia, an agency under the ministry said tourist arrivals fell by 36.8 per cent to 4.23 million for the first quarter of 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019. The government imposed the movement control order in mid-March.

The tourism ministry estimated that the industry suffered around RM45 billion of losses in the first half of the year, according to state news agency Bernama.  

READ: Sun, sea, sand and space as COVID-19 empties popular tourist beaches

STIMULUS MEASURES

Governments in the region have rolled out stimulus packages to revive the domestic tourism sector.

The Thai government has launched a campaign to boost domestic tourism between Jul 1 and Oct 31. Under this campaign, 40 per cent of normal room rates worth no more than 3,000 Baht (US$96.56) per night are paid by the government. It is hoped that this will encourage people to travel within the country and help tourism entrepreneurs affected by the international travel ban.

The stimulus programme is called “We Travel Together”. It offers 5 million nights of stay at hotels and resorts in Thailand. To participate, Thais can register online to enjoy the subsidy when they book accommodation. However, there is a limit of five nights per person.

The Erawan Shrine
The Erawan Shrine at the Ratchaprasong intersection in downtown Bangkok is nearly deserted. The Hindu place of worship was usually crowded with tourists until COVID-19 spread to Thailand. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Besides the accommodation subsidy, the Thai government will also subsidise 2 million air tickets on the same principle – it covers 40 per cent of air tickets worth not more than 1,000 Baht per seat, while travellers have to pay the rest.

“The We Travel Together programme is the government’s initiative to help hotels and restaurants affected as well as tourist attractions,” Thapanee Kiatphaibool, the deputy governor for tourism products and business at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) told CNA.

She added: “A challenge for us now is that we have to try to fill the weekday gap with tourists, meaning we have to increase numbers of tourists during the week.”

Looking ahead, she said TAT could launch more stimulus packages such as “Staycation, and Work from Somewhere”. This will allow civil servants or office employees to work in other places beside their offices, by leveraging telecommunications technology.

READ: Tourism-reliant Thailand shelves 'travel bubble' plan as Asia COVID-19 cases rise

Over in Malaysia, the Visit Malaysia Year 2020 campaign, with a target of 30 million tourist arrivals and RM100 billion tourist receipts, was cancelled in March after the coronavirus outbreak wreaked havoc on global travel.    

To help the tourism sector, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Jun 5 that various tax incentives would be introduced.

For instance, the deferment of tax instalment payment for tourism industry players, such as tour agencies, hotels and airlines, for the period from Apr 1 to Sep 30, has been extended for another three months from Oct 1 to Dec 31.

Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia earlier targeted 30 million tourist arrivals for Visit Malaysia Year 2020 (VMY2020). (Photo: Bernama)  

Tourism tax for the period of Jul 1 until Jun 30 next year have been exempted, and individual income tax relief of up to RM1,000 is offered for expenses in domestic tourism until Dec 31, 2021.

The exemption on the service tax for hotels has also been extended to Jun 30 next year.

Malaysian Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri noted that while a revival of domestic tourism on its own may not be able to prop up the entire hospitality industry, it could reduce the impact on the economy as a whole.

“Domestic tourism will keep the small businesses running and help to stimulate the local economy until international tourism fully resumes again,” she said when interviewed by CNA.

Nancy Shukri
Malaysia's Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri. (Photo: Bernama) 

She added that recent data indicates improved occupancy rates over the past weeks in Malaysia’s historic cities of Melaka and Georgetown, which are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as well as popular resorts and beach destinations in Malaysia’s east coast states of Pahang and Terengganu.

Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy also announced last month that it has earmarked 3.8 trillion rupiah to revive the tourism sector. This figure could be increased in future, said the government.

The majority of the stimulus will come in the form of tax breaks for restaurants, hotels, recreational area operators and tourism agencies. Around 400 billion rupiah will be used to subsidise tickets and 100 billion rupiah will be disbursed in the form of grants.

PROMOTIONAL DEALS, HEALTH PROTOCOLS

To boost occupancy, industry players have launched attractive promotional packages, while putting in place health protocols to put travellers at ease. 

For Casa Del Mar Resort in Langkawi, Malaysia, it has reduced prices by half to attract domestic tourists, front office manager Vinud Athithan told CNA.

Rooms that usually go for RM1,000 now cost RM500, he said, adding that the resort is partnering with different airlines so that travellers can accumulate points by booking rooms.

He added that with this promotion, the hotel has been “extremely busy” on weekends, and has even been fully booked on occasions.

Socio-Economic Research Centre's (SERC) executive director Lee Heng Guie told CNA that for now, Malaysia’s domestic travel industry would benefit from the “big spenders”.

“These people who usually travel overseas and spend lavishly are now bound to domestic destinations. So when they are limited, they do not mind spending extra and upgrading to the more exclusive packages, because ultimately it may still cost less than flying overseas,” he said.

Hotels in Jakarta have also been selling rooms at reduced prices with some offering discounts of up to 75 per cent, Indonesian media reported.

The five-star Grand Sahid Jaya in the heart of Jakarta offered its rooms for as low as 450,000 rupiah (US$30.86) per night, down from around US$75 per night usually.

In terms of hygiene and sanitisation, hotels and resorts have spared no expense to give travellers a peace of mind.

The pool at Ana Anan Resort & Villas Pattaya
The pool at Ana Anan Resort & Villas Pattaya. (Photo: Ana Anan Resort & Villas Pattaya)

At Ana Anan Resort & Villas Pattaya in Thailand, for instance, communal areas are disinfected regularly, while Ultraviolet C irradiation is used to disinfect the guest rooms each time a guest checks out.

Sanitising foot mats and hand sanitisers are also provided at the entry and exit points as well as restaurants, said Kitima Ananchitsupa, the resort’s vice president.

Reservation for breakfast is required in order to ensure that the restaurant is not overcrowded. At the lobby and restaurants, seats have been rearranged to promote social distancing.

The attractions are also adhering to stricter health protocols.

Besides a daily disinfection exercise, the Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta has limited the number of visitors to 1,500 daily, with those interested in going required to book the slots in advance.

It has also shortened operational hours from 10 hours to five hours everyday, while providing live Instagram feeds on some of its animals so visitors don’t have to go there in person.

SHORT-LIVED SURGE IN OCCUPANCY AFTER LIFTING OF RESTRICTIONS

How effective have these measures been in encouraging domestic tourism?

Those in the industry said while there was a surge in bookings immediately after the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the take up rate has since tapered off.

Maulana Yusran, the deputy chairman of PHRI said there were hotels that briefly had 20 per cent to 40 per cent occupancy rate after the lifting of the large-scale social restrictions in Indonesia.

However, it has since declined to between 1 per cent and 15 per cent today, he said.

The Bali Aga -- or mountain people -- who live in these isolated villages, claim to be descendents
The Bali Aga - or mountain people - who live in these isolated villages, claim to be descendants of the original Balinese. (Photo: AFP/SONNY TUMBELAKA)

“Demand is still low. So low that some hotels have decided to remain closed. People are still afraid of travelling. The pandemic is not over and there are people worried about getting infected,” he said.

“So even though the government is trying to promote in-city tourism, it doesn’t have much impact for hotels. People who go to tourist destinations in their own cities don’t need to spend the night at hotels.” 

The Malaysian Association of Hotels’ (MAH) chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng said there has been a spike in demand during the weekends for resort destinations. Recent data obtained by the association, he said, showed that occupancy was around 25 per cent across the board.

However, it is a less rosy picture in the big cities, which are experiencing low occupancy due to dependency on foreign arrivals.

Batu Caves
A giant statue of Lord Muruga stands next to the 272 steps leading up to the Batu Caves temple at dawn during the Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

“Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Kedah, Johor and Sabah in particular, are averaging at between 12 per cent to 20 per cent only,” he said.

In Thailand, the We Travel Together scheme has only recently been launched. Although it is still too early to evaluate the outcome, the government expects the number of domestic tourists to increase during the four-month subsidy period. 

"We are offering 5 million room nights and so far, about 1 million of them have been taken. Still, the travelling period is four months. So, it's likely they'll all be used up," said Thapanee of TAT.

OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES, CAR TRAVEL MORE POPULAR

Industry players have noticed changes in terms of travel habits.

Nunung Rusmiati, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Tour and Travel Agency Association (ASITA) said that due to the pandemic, there has been more interest in adventure and outdoor packages.

“People are still afraid of going to crowded amusement parks and tourist areas. Instead, they are opting to holiday in quiet mountains and hills with breathtaking views on their own or in small groups. We also have people holidaying in private resorts and villas,” she said.

She added: “We are fortunate that Indonesia offers a wide range of natural beauty and activities. We have mountains, beaches, rivers and waterfalls. This is why many travel agencies are adapting their strategies to meet this trend.”

Whale watching
There has been unexpected interest in whale watching tours this season. (Photo: Parinya Padungtin)

Parinya Padungtin, who runs Bangkok Whale Watching also told CNA that there has been unexpected interest in tours during the current season.

He noted that whale watching is an activity that takes place in open space, and this may be one of the reasons why travellers feel safer.

“It's hot but we also have sea breeze. I don't think COVID-19 likes this sort of weather," he said, referring to the infectious nature of the virus.

“Thanks to COVID-19, many people believe that human activities at sea reduced a great deal during the lockdown. That has resulted in a growing population of small fish, which whales eat. So that makes it easier to spot whales now, compared to last year.”

The tour operator added: “Pictures and video clips from tourists show many whales have been spotted at close proximity and that has made others want to see them with their own eyes too.”

READ: Off the beaten path - Niche lodgings beckon domestic travellers in post-lockdown Malaysia

There are also implications on transport.

Yusran of PHRI noted that there remains a general aversion towards air travel. This is exacerbated by the requirements set by the Indonesian authorities to secure health certificates and take rapid tests, which could add to cost and hassle for travellers.

“(This is) why we are seeing people switching to private vehicles for their holiday trips. Because of this, we are seeing people from Jakarta for example, holidaying in Bandung or Puncak or other places they can get to using cars along the Trans-Java toll road,” he said.

“That is the tendency right now, people going places they can get to by car.”

Yap of MAH concurred. “We have observed high occupancy at resort destinations where locals can drive to, while in general, travellers try to avoid taking flights,” he said.

READ: Commentary - To facilitate regional air travel again, ASEAN needs to harmonise standards

READ: Putrajaya tells airlines to set reasonable fares as the economy recovers from COVID-19

SOME ANALYSTS SCEPTICAL OF MOVE TO REOPEN TOURISM SECTOR

Some analysts interviewed by CNA have remained sceptical of the move to reopen the domestic tourism sector, saying that it might spark a further wave of infections.

Azril Azahari, a tourism analyst and chairman of the Indonesia Tourism Intellectual Association (ITIA) said the government may have reopened the tourism sector prematurely in stages starting Jun 20, when the number of infections was still rising.

“What the government should have done is to keep tourist areas closed and used that time to address some of the drawbacks in our tourism sector,” he said.

Foreign tourists visit a memorial for victims of the 2002 Bali bombings in the Kuta tourist strip
Foreign tourists visit a memorial for victims of the 2002 Bali bombings in the Kuta tourist strip near Denpasar on Indonesia's resort island of Bali. (Photo: AFP/Sonny Tumbelaka)

He noted that Indonesia did not receive a high rating in the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index.

“Our tourism facilities scored low in terms of hygiene, health, safety, security and environmental sustainability. The first two points have become even more relevant in a time of a pandemic,” he said.

“The government said that these tourist areas will be reopened with strict health protocols in place. But who monitors these areas to see if such protocols are really implemented?”

Azahari added: “There must be efforts to ensure that officials in these areas are well equipped and well trained and the places properly and regularly sanitised. (There must also be) facilities like clinics and washbasins. You cannot just leave everything to the operators to implement these protocols however they want to.”

READ: Malaysia's tourism industry braces for long road to recovery despite the resumption of interstate travel

Meanwhile, Lee of SERC said that industry players will need to be aware of the concerns regarding a potentially new wave of infection that would further dampen business.

“The government should therefore work with these industry players and continue maintaining the strict Standard Operating Procedures to ensure travellers feel safe when they walk into any hotel, home stay or tourist attraction,” he said.

He added that though the easing of the movement control order in Malaysia has improved the situation, recovery will take a long time.

“Yes now there is a light, but the light is still very dim. It is still better than nothing though.”

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Source: CNA/aw

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