Collaboration and flexibility key to reviving ASEAN’s tourism industry

Social distancing in action in the air. Photo: Mx. Granger / CC0

COVID-19 put tourism in Southeast Asia on hold. ASEAN economies need their tourism sectors to get moving again once restrictions are liftedbut it will take time and a flexible approach.

By John Pennington

The coronavirus pandemic has delivered a hammer blow to tourism in Southeast Asia. Tourism in the region was down 36% in the first quarter of 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) expects a worldwide drop of 30% in tourist arrivals.

Sources: Knoema (1), (2), (3), (4), (5), (6), (7), (8), (9), (10)

While COVID-19’s global impact is unprecedented, there are a few indicators from the past. Indonesia’s tourist sector took six months to recover following the Lombok bombing in 2018. Meanwhile, it took years for Indonesia and Thailand to recover from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Unsurprisingly, data and consulting firm Tourism Economics predicts tourism will not get back to normal until 2023. Indonesian economists believe recovery will take at least one year. They paint a gloomy picture for Southeast Asia, where tourism employs millions.

What will tourism look like in the future?

There is some good news. A recent survey highlighted confidence among Chinese tourists, 53% of whom said they wanted to travel abroad this year. Of those, 71% named Thailand as a preferred destination.

But tourism, once restrictions are lifted, will look very different. Younger travellers are expected to lead the way as a fear factor will put off older tourists—particularly those with health issues.

Travel hubs, aeroplanes, hotels and other venues will have to implement social distancing and sanitisation measures. Countries will need plans in place to treat people if they do fall ill.

Those extra measures will come at a cost. Airlines need to fly their planes at 70% capacity to break even. If social distancing means they can’t achieve that, prices will rise, or they will limit their flights. Hotels and venues having to clean more thoroughly may create jobs, but the costs may be passed onto consumers through price rises.

Photo: Peter van der Sluijs / CC BY-SA

Countries will focus on boosting domestic tourism first

As rules on internal movement will be relaxed before borders are reopened, countries all over the world are gearing up to push domestic tourism. Even when restrictions ease, many people will view travelling abroad as too risky.

Malaysia is planning a domestic promotion from September. Social media will play a big role. Musa Yousuf, Tourism Malaysia’s director-general, explained that its priority is to, “refocus on domestic tourism to increase demand for the travel trade and related services, including airlines, accommodation, land transportation, retail and F&B.”

Similarly, the Philippines will turn to domestic tourism first. “By tapping into our domestic and short-haul markets through effective targeted marketing, we can bypass some of the considerable challenges we face following this pandemic,” said Bernadette Romulo-Puyat, the country’s Tourism Secretary.

ASEAN collaboration is vital, but will it happen?

ASEAN as a grouping has come in for criticism for its handling of the coronavirus crisis. There has been little in the way of coordinated action.

That seems to be slowly changing, with the ASEAN virtual COVID-19 summit last month a potential turning point. However, existing cross-bloc initiatives, such as the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management, have been ignored. Rhetoric about learning from previous pandemics did not translate into actions.

With that in mind, a recent statement from ASEAN tourism ministers outlining a seven-point action plan to revive tourism across the region is welcome but does not guarantee anything.

Source: PR Newswire

In theory, the measures will help. For example, knowledge sharing should boost tourism in the region and ensure people are kept safe. Establishing standard guidelines echoes comments made by leaders at the virtual summit.

“Several studies state that it needs, at least, five years for the tourism sector to return to the normal condition after the COVID-19. But I believe that ASEAN is better than that, the tourism in our region will recover faster under one condition, we have to strengthen the cooperation and collaboration,” said Angela Tanoesoedibjo, Indonesia’s Vice Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy.

“More than ever, we are banking on the unity of the tourism industry to ensure that we will together endure and overcome these trying times,” added Puyat.

What else can governments and organisations do?

There are other measures governments can take to give the tourism industry a boost. Bailout packages are one option. Loans and benefits are others. Being aware of changing trends in travel is vital. As tourists look to reconnect with nature and travel in bigger family groups than before, can the industry pivot to meet their needs?

Malaysia is pushing a whole-of-community approach. The government has enlisted the help of universities. Thailand is introducing a certification scheme. Hotels and venues must prove they are meeting sanitisation standards. Otherwise, they will not be able to receive tourists.

Indonesia is considering doing the same. But can the region regain tourists’ trust if only a handful of its members put this in place? Those that move quickest might benefit at others’ expense.

Tourism must build on what is happening in other sectors

Tourism is not the only sector which would benefit from collaboration. The United Nations (UN) is urging countries to work together to avoid a food crisis. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has already pushed for cooperation on trade and medical supplies. “ASEAN must remain open for trade, crisis or no crisis, as no country can stand alone,” he said.

The Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on COVID-19, set up in March, is a successful example of nations working together. “Through this Working Committee, we have kept goods flowing between us, despite current restrictions on the movement of people,” said Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Elsewhere, US and ASEAN health ministers have committed to helping one another. Following a video conference on April 30, they pledged to put in place “concrete and effective measures” to overcome the pandemic.

The early indications are that the ‘new normal’ sees nations and regions—through necessity as much as choice—stepping up cooperation, first to fight the pandemic and then to bring about economic recovery, however long that takes. It is therefore essential for tourism sectors throughout ASEAN to work together, from identifying and adapting to new trends to establishing and following best practices.

Given tourism’s importance to the region, being left behind is not an option. As the UN’s Maximo Herrero put it, “It is precisely because the coronavirus doesn’t respect borders that global cooperation is the only shot at defeating it.”

About the Author

John Pennington
John Pennington is an English freelance writer and a self-published author. He graduated from the University of Warwick with a bachelor’s degree in French and History in 2006. After spending time as a sports journalist, he now writes about politics, history and social affairs.