As destinations around the world open up to vaccinated travellers, some in the industry are seeing a rebound for the sector. However, the recovery pace in Asia-Pacific lags behind the West, impeded by ongoing restrictions and slow vaccine rollout in parts of Asia.
The appetite for travel remains unabated as destinations across Europe report a steady summer of recovery for vaccinated travel. However, tourism across Asia-Pacific remains limited due to tight border restrictions and lagging vaccination rates.
Ahead of the peak summer months, countries across the west that were steaming ahead with vaccination programmes cautiously reopened their borders to foreigners. In spite of stringent sets of rules, travel rebound was a success as pent-up demand came into play.
In July, Spain received 4.4 million international tourists, a 78.3 per cent increase from 2020. In the same month, Switzerland reported a 300 per cent year-on-year rise from the American market. Throughout the summer, France received 150,000 applications for digital Covid certificates, mainly from North America.
Spain’s new regulations for re-starting international tourism came into force on June 7 and take in a raft of measures. These include EU-approved rapid antigen tests and vaccination and recovery certificates for travellers from the EU and European Economic Area countries, as well as vaccination certificates for tourists from non-EU countries.
According to figures from the National Statistics Institute, international visitors in July spent 5,231 million euros (US$6,052 million). The average expenditure per tourist was 19.3 per cent more than a year ago and the average stay was 8.3 days.
Monica Sanchez, director of Spain Tourism Board for Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand, said: “This reflects the gradual recovery of international tourism and shows Spain has managed to be perceived as a safe destination.”
Spain’s vaccination programme was key to its reopening, noted Sanchez. It has one of the best vaccination rates in Europe and the world. “The success of the vaccination programme and relaxation of restrictions are allowing the gradual reactivation of tourism, although still far from the levels of 2019,” she said.
Switzerland’s reopening to international visitors is also driven by vaccination rates. Under a raft of measures that are constantly being reviewed, fully vaccinated visitors can enter the country with no quarantine.
Its first bounce-back came from nearby markets, including Germany, the UK and France. From longhaul destinations, Americans started arriving in April 2021. In July, they generated more than 60,000 overnights.
Hurdles for Asians
While visitors from Europe and the Americas are driving rebound, arrivals from Asia-Pacific remain low. According to industry players, this is due to tight restrictions that remain in place across the region.
Batiste Pilet, director South East Asia, Switzerland Tourism, said: “We have not observed a noticeable bounce-back from South-east Asian markets due to discouraging time and money-consuming quarantine requirements upon their return.”
He added the gap has been noticeable. In 2019, South-east Asia accounted for 600,000 overnights in Switzerland and ranked the 10th foreign source market. China was the front runner, totalling 50 per cent of overnight stays from Asia-Pacific. South-east Asia made up 20 per cent; and South Korea, Australia and Japan, 10 per cent each.
Said Pilet: “Border restrictions are the main hurdle preventing recovery. Apart from these restrictions, customers are eager to travel.”
Sanchez said while arrivals from Asia-Pacific to Spain are “very incipient”, it remains a valuable regional market as they travel out of Europe’s high season. She added they are motivated by art, culture and shopping. Post-pandemic, Singapore is predicted to rebound first due to direct flights and the Philippines because of historical connections.
The introduction of the EU Digital Covid Certificate has also proved instrumental in reopening European borders for travel. The digital or paper certificate confirms the holder has been vaccinated, received a negative test result or recovered from Covid-19 in the last six months. It facilitates safe travel within the EU.
This is a factor Sinan Thourn, chairman of B2B Cambodia and PATA Cambodia chapter, said is difficult to achieve in South-east Asia due to geopolitics. “The two continents (Europe and Asia) are totally different,” he said. “The EU has no borders and there is the Schengen Area. All these countries have good bilateral cooperation. If we look at Asia, everyone is trying to be number one and is only looking out for their country, not the whole of Asia.”
He added heavy restrictions that remain in place across the region, such as quarantine on arrival, are a major “annoyance” for travellers. “It is this reason why tourism in Asia will take a lot longer to recover compared with Europe,” he added.
Thourn noted there is a lot of pent-up travel demand across Asia-Pacific, and once restrictions across the region are lifted, there will be a healthy mix of long and short-haul travel. He predicts Europe and the US will be popular longhaul destinations. However, outbound recovery to pre-pandemic levels will take time.
Yes to safety, no to quarantines
Alain Brun, CEO of Cambodia Airports, said Vinci Airports’ European operations have reported a quick recovery since restrictions were lifted. In August, air traffic across Europe reached 71 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. In Costa Rica, the airport has returned to 2019’s growth levels.
“The introduction of the sanitary pass and health protocols have proved instrumental in this,” he said.
Nick Ray, product director of Hanuman Travel which has offices in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, said vaccinations are key to the safe reopening of borders. However, this has to be coupled with no quarantine.
“To be given a chance, there has to be entry without quarantine for vaccinated travellers. We’ve seen people want to travel, but destinations on both sides have to be fully open,” he said.
Sivlin Chhay, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents, agreed that regional outbound travel is off the table until quarantine restrictions are lifted for vaccinated travellers. She added that pent-up demand in Asia-Pacific extends beyond leisure travel.
“There are a lot of people who want to travel within the region for business and health reasons,” she noted. “This will pick up fast, but quarantines and other restrictions discourage any non-essential travel.”