• Buyers say clients are ready to travel as soon as restrictions are lifted
• Vaccination of travellers has helped to boost travel confidence
• Destination research has started; clean and safe destinations are preferred
Although current international arrivals into South-east Asia are still severely marred by a volatile pandemic situation and travel restrictions, regional and international travel trade buyers have begun working on travel programmes in the region for a possible roll-out later this year.
Walter L Keats, president of US-based Asia Pacific Travel, expects travel to South-east Asia to be possible as early as November 2021 and that demand will continue through March 2022 – the typical winter travel season when Americans escape the cold at home.
His confidence is built upon the ongoing vaccination programme in the US and president Joe Biden’s goal to vaccinate all willing residents by July 4, 2021.
“This will unleash a wave of pent up demand for travel by these Americans,” Keats projected, but added that for outbound travel to be possible, destinations and airlines must agree on acceptable vaccination passports.
While waiting for an encouraging travel landscape to materialise, Keats has started to study the South-east Asian marketplace so as to help with travel programming.
Keats is among more than 150 regional and international travel trade buyers that have registered for Great ASEAN Travel Fest 2021, an online travel trade event focusing on promoting South-east Asian destinations and supporting players working towards business recovery. The event is happening on May 4 and 5, 2021. Participation numbers are expected to climb as registration remains open.
Sharing the same confidence is Zaim Muhammad, representative of Dubai-based Travel Counsellor, who expects the UAE’s successful vaccination programme to spur outbound travel confidence.
Zaim believes that South-east Asia, a popular region among UAE travellers pre-pandemic, will continue to charm once international borders reopen.
Melody Palomares, president of MAVP Travel & Tours in the Philippines and president/founder of the United Travel Agencies and Operators Association, has also started to research into South-east Asian destinations with the potential to welcome her incentive groups. Clients have expressed intentions to “push through with their incentive trips once borders are open”.
New and safe destinations with a track record of low Covid-19 infection numbers are desired, shared Palomares.
Traveller health and safety as priority is a prime criteria echoed by several Great ASEAN Travel Fest 2021 buyers who spoke to TTG Asia.
Keats said vaccinated American travellers would be confident of travelling even to destinations without a majority vaccinated population, as long as health and safety protocols are in place, such as safe distancing and masking requirements.
Palomares added that outdoor attractions and activities, such as national parks, would be most attractive for her clients looking for social distance assurance. Destinations that offer contact-less screening technology at airports, hotels, restaurants and attractions would also be stand-out options.
As travel planning begins, buyers underline the importance of regular and detailed communications from destination marketers and sellers, particularly in relaying information on Covid-19 travel and activity regulations, new products and services in existing and emerging tourist destinations, and the availability of flexible booking arrangements.
Slow recovery for now
International air arrival numbers into South-east Asia for the period of January 1 to April 15, 2021 have stayed low, according to ForwardKeys’ Air Ticket Data, reaching only five per cent of pre-pandemic 2019 levels.
Researchers at the intelligence firm are not surprised, given the different pandemic situations among ASEAN member countries. They noted that Singapore, whose government has been successful in controlling caseloads, implementing a nation-wide vaccination programme, moving forward with travel bubbles, and establishing safe meeting zones for business travellers like the Connect@Changi facility, is seeing international arrivals recovering to six per cent of 2019 levels.
Domestic air arrivals within the individual South-east Asian countries look brighter, with Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines having clawed their way to 17 per cent, 20 per cent and 24 per cent of 2019 levels, respectively.
Domestic air travel recovery within Vietnam is most outstanding, having surpassed 2019 levels at 120 per cent. The country has escaped relatively unscathed from the pandemic, compared to her neighbours in the region. Domestic flights were resumed and lockdowns lifted in mid-April 2020, allowing tourism recovery to begin from mid-May. Between January 1 and April 11, 2021, domestic air arrivals in Vietnam recorded a 20 per cent increase compared to 2019 levels.
Despite a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in summer, domestic travel picked up steam from 4Q2020 when infections were contained.
Jameson Wong, ForwardKeys’ Asia-Pacific director, told TTG Asia that “the path to recovery in Asia-Pacific will be gradual, fragile and full of unexpected twists as the vaccination drive increases consumer trust, yet a lot depends on the pace of the rollout and new cases of Covid-19”.