While swathes of Asia triumphed against the rest of the globe in the early stages of the pandemic by controlling the spread of the virus, shutting borders and locking down economies, the region’s inoculation is lagging. This has prompted tourism business leaders to urge the region to ramp up the rollout of vaccination programmes and scrap quarantines for inoculated visitors in order to rebuild traveller confidence.
At PATA’s Virtual PAS Forum 2021, John Brown, CEO of Agoda, said vaccinations both at home and abroad are key for international travel to rebound in the region.
“No vaccination, no vacation,” he noted. “The third chapter of getting back really requires the vaccination of a population overall. Asia, is pretty far behind. All markets are way down in the single digits while a lot of the West is into the double digits.”
Evidence that vaccinations quickly restore traveller confidence can be seen in the US, where almost 40 per cent of the population are now fully vaccinated.
Greg Klassen, partner at tourism research consultancy Twenty31 Consulting, said a study revealed 43 per cent of Americans now feel safe flying. This compares with 30 per cent globally.
“We really need Americans to be flying to other parts of the world with that level of confidence,” he noted.
While domestic travel still dominates in the US, an increasing number of trips to the Caribbean and Mexico are being booked. Once more borders across the world start reopening, he expects Americans – and other vaccinated populations – will look farther afield.
Stephen Kaufer, CEO of TripAdvisor, added: “What we all hoped for was once people are vaccinated it would release a fair amount of pent up demand and we’re absolutely seeing it in the US. I hope people can look at the US and see once vaccinated, wow, travel is going to come back very quickly.”
The Middle East is another shining example, where vaccination programmes are rapidly being rolled out. Ross Veitch, CEO and co-founder of Wego, goes as far as to predict a strong summer period.
“It’s going to be one of the first regions where most of the population is vaccinated,” he remarked. “The chances of us having a decent summer are looking reasonably good at this point.”
In April, Emirates ran a trial flight carrying almost 400 fully-vaccinated passengers. While the flight did a round-trip from Dubai over the UAE, Tim Clark, Emirates’ president, said the exercise proved the airline is ready to resume business, provided health protocols and travel certification rules are established in each destination.
He added that while some airlines plan to make it mandatory that passengers are fully vaccinated, this is not the industry’s role. “It is not for the airlines to make that decision,” he said. “It needs to be taken by the states in which the passengers they are carrying arrive into.”
While vaccinations are key, Veitch added that another crucial step in reviving tourism across the region is opening borders without quarantine to the growing number of vaccinated travellers.
“As long as quarantines don’t go away, there isn’t going to be a huge resurgence in cross-border travel,” he opined. “A more risk-moderated approach to travel restrictions needs to be taken and we need governments to start focusing their attention on this.”
For example, Hawaii is now allowing international travellers from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Canada to bypass the mandatory 10-day quarantine if they have taken a trusted Covid-19 test. The Thai island of Phuket will also start welcoming vaccinated visitors with no quarantine from July – although this may be impacted by the latest outbreak. Cambodia is also mulling allowing vaccinated international travellers in with no or reduced quarantine from October.
Brown said that at an absolute maximum, quarantine should be one-night at a hotel of visitors’ choice while they wait for rapid test results.
“People will get off the plane and do a rapid test,” he said. “The worst case, they go to a hotel for a night and sit at the pool for a couple of hours the next day to wait for their results, and then they’re free. It’s basically what they would do anyway. If governments, OTAs, tour operators and other partners can offer a product like that, then people will come.”
As governments across the region mull the safest way to start welcoming foreign visitors, Kaufer said it is important the tourism industry “keeps the voices loud to as many different government channels as possible” to reassure them that this is a safe way to welcome travellers.
“It defies common sense that a vaccinated individual wouldn’t be welcome in a country and as this takes off I hope you can flash your vaccine card and come right on in,” he said. “I’m so confident that would spur a tonne of international demand.”