Self-drive vacations to lead the way in early tourism recovery

Self-drive holidays in Malaysia and Thailand are expected to see a strong revival as local residents seek safer forms of travel in the early days of tourism recovery.

After nearly two months of curfews and travel restrictions, Thai FITs are raring to head out again and the most eye-catching destinations are those that they can access with their personal cars once limitations ease up.

Self-drive vacations are expected to rise in popularity on the back of greater demand for domestic travel post-pandemic

Last week’s C9 Hotelworks report indicated that family beach destination Hua Hin is primed to benefit from this trend – 75 per cent of the resort town’s visitors in 2019 were domestic tourists.

Bill Barnett, founder of C9 Hotelworks, indicated that “both overnight stays and day trips look to be the agents of change in the short-term.”

According to data from STR, domestic tourism has proven positive for destinations like Hua Hin, helping to prop up market-wide average room rate at the 4,000 baht (US$125) level, which “in many of other Thailand’s resort destinations rates have been flat or in some cases retreated in the face of mass tourism and appreciation of the Thai baht,” stated Barnett.

Jaffee Yee, PATA Chiang Rai Chapter chairman, foresees more Thais taking self-drive holidays for “as long as the coronavirus is still around” and “before an effective vaccine is available”.

He reasoned that costly air travel, fewer flight options as well as social distancing and hygiene requirements could deter air travel in the recovery stage.

With prices of gasoline at an all time low, “self-drive vacations are more carefree and enjoyable as one can stop anywhere and stay as long one desires,” he added.

Beach destinations in the south and the east, and possibly along long routes like Bangkok to North Thailand, would likely do well with the self-drive segment.

Yee also pointed out that post-pandemic leisure travel trends may shift to less crowded places with plenty of open air environment, such as natural and cultural spots like Hua Hin, Koh Chang, Koh Samed and the mountain resorts of Chiang Rai (Phu Chi Fah, Doitung, Doi Mae Salong), Chiang Mai (Doi Suthep, Inthanon, Doi Luang), Pai and Maehongson.

Yee is working on initiatives to revive cross-border self-drive holidays, such as from Yunnan to North Thailand. He also foresees self-drive tourism potential between Thailand and Myanmar, and between Thailand and Malaysia.

Andre van der Marck, founder and managing director of Travel Exclusive Asia, expects self-drive holidays to pick up especially among the richer Thais – people in the middle class and up, and who have their own cars. The self-drive trend may stay for four to six months, before Thais return to overseas destinations.

Amid the changing landscape of tourism business, Nattapong Saengsirirattana, managing director of Thai Leisure Co., told TTG Asia that he might try his hand at the domestic market. Thai Leisure Co, has all along focused on the foreign market, but overseas arrivals are expected to be weak until the end of the year.

“Right now it’s hard to wait for foreign tours to come in. If our government can get the virus under control, reduce restrictions and let Thai people travel, we may adjust our business plan to accommodate Thais,” he said.

However, van der Marck is doubtful that domestic self-drive holidays will bring much needed business to travel agencies.

“I’m not sure if (travellers) really need a DMC to handle such trips. Thais are a hard and rough market; everyone can drive and book a hotel via Agoda. But it could be something for local DMCs who are really Thai oriented to look at,” he said.

Over in Malaysia, trade agents are more upbeat about the business prospects of domestic self-drive vacations.

Mayflower Car Rental general manager, Abdul Rahman Mohamed, foresees a pick-up in domestic self-drive vacations as soon as the government lifts its Conditional Movement Control Order and allows interstate travel again.

He believes that self-drive is an option for FITs who are not yet comfortable with using public transport due to social distancing and hygiene concerns.

To allay fears, the company sanitises its vehicles before handing them over to new customers and provides hand sanitisers and face masks.

He expects Penang, Langkawi and Melaka to benefit the most from self-drive vacations, as these are perfect for short weekend getaways and are already a hit with the domestic market pre-pandemic.

For Haniza Hasan, managing director of Langkawi-based Honeyzone Travel & Tours, the domestic self-drive vacation market has always been a strong performer. Domestic bookings make up 80 per cent of the company’s self-drive business, she shared, and is a more lucrative business compared with walk-ins the company gets from foreigners who are already in Langkawi.

Haniza said the business comes with upselling potential, as domestic travellers will purchase accommodation and transportation from her agency and are open to suggested itineraries, attractions and activities that will help pad up her income.

Haniza and fellow Langkawi inbound specialist, Eric Sinnaya, managing director of Morahols Travel, are predicting a return in the domestic market from early 2021.

Sinnaya said Langkawi is in a strong position to attract travellers, as the destination has been in the Green Zone, which means it has no active cases.

For now, Haniza is selling accommodation and vehicle rental packages ahead for 2021, throwing in a 40 per cent early-bird discount to get appetites going. – Additional reporting by S Puvaneswary

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