SINGAPORE: It has been a rough quarter for Southeast Asia’s aviation and tourism sectors as new record waves of COVID-19 cases have set back domestic recoveries and timelines for resuming international travel.
Southeast Asia now faces a slower recovery than other regions, which could have economic implications and make it harder to attract international tourists for potentially several years.
However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccine rollouts are starting to accelerate throughout the region.
SOUTHEAST ASIA HEADING IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION
Vaccines have been the key in reopening borders elsewhere around the world and in reducing or waiving quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers.
Globally, more than 25 countries have waived quarantine or have plans in place to soon start waiving quarantine for vaccinated travelers.
Yet, Southeast Asia has been going in the opposite direction, with some countries increasing quarantine from 14 to 21 days in recent months even for vaccinated travelers, making it impossible to recover international traffic.
International passenger traffic in Southeast Asia has been stalled for several months at around 3 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, which is slightly below the current Asia-Pacific average of around 4 per cent and well below the current global average of around 15 per cent.
The gap between Asia-Pacific, including Southeast Asia, and the rest of the world will grow over the next few months as other regions gradually reopen, particularly to vaccinated travelers.
While COVID-19 case numbers in Southeast Asia are currently at record or near record levels, it is critical for governments to start planning for a gradual reopening of borders, initially to vaccinated travelers.
This is not the time to swing open borders but it is the time to put in place new travel protocols and a framework to facilitate a resumption of international travel.
READ: Commentary: Costs of US travel bans come into sharper focus - for separated families, jobs and more
THAILAND SETS THE STANDARD?
Thailand’s bold declaration on Wednesday (Jun 16) to reopen to vaccinated travelers within 120 days is encouraging and is the first example of a Southeast Asian country providing a reopening timeline.
However, it is just a start as Thailand is just one country and has made several U-turns over the last several months, making it somewhat questionable its borders will swing open by October.
There are still questions on whether Thailand will be able to start a quarantine free pilot programme in Phuket on Jul 1, when the island is slated to reopen to vaccinated travelers from low- to medium-risk countries provided the visitor does not leave the island for 14 days and meets several requirements.
READ: Commentary: Goodbye Boracay, hello Tagaytay – less well-known places could be the future for domestic travel
The Phuket “Sandbox” plan is aimed at tourists from outside the region, particularly Europe, because it is impossible to attract visitors from other countries in Southeast Asia or anywhere in Asia-Pacific until their quarantine requirements are relaxed or waived.
A MULTILATERAL EFFORT NEEDED
The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should be working together – ideally on a multilateral rather than bilateral basis – to lay the foundation for a resumption of travel within and to and from the region.
For the last year, I’ve been advocating for the ASEAN Secretariat to step up and help facilitate a recovery for Southeast Asia’s aviation and tourism industries.
In a June 2020 commentary, I urged ASEAN to become more active, pointing out the impact of un-harmonised standards and protocols as well as advocating the concept of travel bubbles.
I subsequently expanded on this concept in a white paper published in December 2020 by the Aviation Studies Institute at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), recommending a pan-ASEAN air transport bubble to facilitate a resumption of international air travel between ASEAN countries.
An update to the white paper was published by SUTD earlier this month, concluding that “a pan-ASEAN air transport bubble as well as other ASEAN initiatives such as the ASEAN health passport would help facilitate an earlier regional recovery and provide major economic benefits”.
READ: Commentary: A digital vaccine passport could open up Southeast Asia travel bubble but some changes needed first
ASEAN stated in March 2021 it was considering a common digital vaccine passport but this initiative has so far failed to progress due to a lack of confidence in its feasibility and the failure of any member-nation to step forward and lead the way.
While the ASEAN health passport may not be achievable, the 10 member countries can still work together on standards and protocols, which would help facilitate a general reopening.
There is also an opportunity to work together to jointly approve industry initiatives such as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Pass.
Airlines in ASEAN have talked to IATA and more than a dozen other suppliers of proposed travel passes but have not moved forward due to a lack of buy-in and consensus.
While there are several travel app trials in Southeast Asia involving airlines and governments, there has been little to no progress in approving any of the available platforms or the general concept.
CONTINUED LACK OF CONSENSUS
A continued lack of consensus on new air travel standards and protocols also remains an obstacle.
Several ASEAN countries have still not adopted the new air travel guidelines recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) initially published in June 2020 and updated in December 2020 and again in March 2021.
ASEAN countries and in some cases local government units within countries have adopted their own regulations, resulting in a complex patchwork of rules that can be difficult to adhere to, leading to confused passengers and unusually long airport check-in times.
Mutual recognition of COVID-19 tests and vaccines is particularly important but has so far failed to materialise.
Some countries are only recognising the vaccines they have been using in their own countries rather than all vaccines recognised by the World Health Organisation.
For example, the Philippines earlier this month reduced its quarantine requirement from 14 to seven days but only for individuals vaccinated in the Philippines.
It is encouraging the Philippines has reduced quarantine times for some vaccinated travelers, but the impact will be limited until this also applies to overseas Filipinos or visitors who were vaccinated abroad.
Vietnam also has been looking at reducing or waiving quarantine, currently 21 days, to vaccinated travelers but some initial reports indicate it would be limited to travelers inoculated with vaccines approved for use in Vietnam.
ASEAN countries should urgently consider a mutual vaccination recognition scheme, which would help facilitate a resumption of international travel.
For example, a Singapore resident vaccinated with Moderna should be able to qualify for reduced quarantine in Vietnam, Philippines or any other ASEAN country even though Singapore is the only ASEAN country using Moderna as part of its COVID-19 vaccination programme.
Reduced quarantine for all vaccinated travelers in ASEAN would be a welcome first step and could subsequently be followed by waiving quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers.
READ: Commentary: A precious chance to see my ageing mother in Germany after being separated by COVID-19
ASEAN RISKS LAGGING BEHIND OTHER REGIONS
If ASEAN does not start putting in place the building blocks needed to support a resumption of international travel – such as mutual recognition of vaccines – there can be long-term economic implications as other regions start to gradually reopen to vaccinated travelers.
Companies in the ASEAN aviation and travel sectors will struggle to survive a prolonged closure of the international market and will also be at a competitive disadvantage to competitors in other regions as their customers from outside ASEAN discover alternative destinations.
Domestic travel is important and during the pandemic has helped companies based in those ASEAN countries with significant domestic markets.
However, from a revenue and economic perspective, ASEAN is much more dependent on international tourism.
ASEAN also has a domestic market that is smaller and that has so far recovered slower than other regions.
Domestic passenger traffic in ASEAN reached around 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter of 2020 but declined in the first quarter of 2021 and has declined further in the second quarter of 2021 as new waves of cases led to local travel restrictions.
Domestic traffic is currently at about 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels while globally domestic traffic is now at about 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
While domestic travel in ASEAN could start improving again in the third quarter of this year, it will continue to lag the global average while the more critical international market will likely remain stalled at current levels until at least the fourth quarter of this year.
Not much can be done about the bleak outlook for the next few months except hunker down and weather the storm as ASEAN countries focus on containing the virus and rolling out vaccines.
However, now is the time for the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN countries to step up and put in place the protocols and framework to facilitate a recovery in international travel that could start later this year and reach significant levels early next year, as vaccination rates reach herd immunity levels.
If the groundwork is not done over the next few months, the risk is an even slower recovery and an even wider gap between ASEAN and the rest of the world with potentially devastating consequences.
Brendan Sobie is the founder of Singapore-based independent aviation consulting and analysis firm Sobie Aviation. He was previously chief analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.