Travel challenges impede travellers’ return to Indochina circuit

  • Regional circuits are being booked for later in the year
  • Limited regional flights make regional circuits tough to plan
  • Opportunity for a rise in tourism demand for smaller locations in the region

Pre-pandemic, the Indochina circuit was a popular option for travellers, especially those from faraway places, wanting to explore a mix of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar in a single trip. Travel restrictions and tightly shut borders over the past two years have led industry experts to predict the rise of solo destination travel once the region reopened.

Now that travel restrictions are easing off across South-east Asia, starting with Cambodia being one of the first countries in the region to welcome double-jabbed tourists with limited restrictions and easy entry requirements since November 2021, industry stakeholders are revisiting the question: will the regional travel circuit make a return?

Lack of surety around regional flight schedules have prompted longhaul travellers to push their Indochina circuits to late-2022; pictured Angkor Thom in Cambodia

Willem Niemeijer, founder of Khiri Travel, said currently the majority of multi-country travel bookings are for later in the year.

“Up until very recently, Laos was still closed and the Thailand Pass also stands in the way of (travellers’ ability to) confidently make multi-country trips in the near future,” Niemeijer said.

While he believes multi-country trips will make some form of comeback, he predicts that the traditional Indochina programmes that combine three or four destinations at one go may be “past their prime”.

He explained that each of these destinations is far more developed, facilitating longer visits and putting “less pressure” on the longhaul traveller “to hop on another flight to the next highlight”.

Flight disruptions
Meanwhile, tourism stakeholders agree that flight accessibility is an obstacle to more complex itineraries cutting across several destinations.

Despite borders being open and restrictions removed or drastically minimised regionally, the continued disruption of flights remains a challenge.

“The regular domestic and regional flights all need to return to a more dependable and regular schedule,” opined Niemeijer. “The severely disrupted airlines schedules make planning itineraries very difficult.”

Niemeijer: regular domestic and regional flights all need to return to a more dependable and regular schedule

Jeff Redl, managing director of Diethelm Travel Vietnam, noted that Diethelm is receiving some demand for Indochina combination trips. However, due to limited regional flights, clients continue to have to postpone their travels, or change routes.

For example, until July 1, there are still no direct flights from Siem Reap in Cambodia to any airport in Vietnam.

Redl told TTG Asia: “There are also no flights from LPQ (Luang Prabang), which makes the combination impossible with Laos. It’s crucial that regional flights are back at the earliest, as guests want to plan only when they know services are running.

“Stable flight services also help to strengthen traveller confidence,” Redl noted.

Bill Barnett, founder and managing director of C9 Hotelworks, said limited regional flights are driving a new trend of in-country travel. He predicts this, in turn, will promote tourism in smaller locations, such as Labuan Bajo in Indonesia and the Thai island of Koh Pha Ngan.

“The circuit is changing,” he observed.

“Airlift is key and there is a lot less airlift now, so I think we will see more entry into a single country, and then excursions, versus across all of South-east Asia.

“This is likely to be a boom for smaller and less-trafficked locations, which will get these mini-trips. That will grow tourism in newer locations. ‘Smaller is better’ is the new mantra,” said Barnett.

Redl: Stable flight services also help to strengthen traveller confidence

Cooperative region is key
Like Niemeijer, Sinan Thourn, founder of B2B Travel and PATA Cambodia chairman, is confident that the regional circuit will make a return in some form as traveller confidence grows.

“The opening of borders across the region will help stimulate tourist traffic regionally, as well as boost international tourists travelling across these borders,” he said.

“It’s very important that ASEAN member countries work closely by action and not only on paper,” he added.

In July, the Cambodia-Vietnam-Thailand Economy Corridor initiative will kickstart to promote cross-country travel to the three nations’ connected coastal zones.

Before that comes into force, Redl said demand for travel around the region is already growing. Currently, France and the UK are the most active markets, especially for summer. Germany, Switzerland and the US are looking more ahead to 4Q2022 and 1Q2023.

Highlighting other changes in longhaul booking habits, Redl said travellers are planning and booking in shorter time frames than pre-pandemic, when booking lead times used to stretch about three months in advance. Travellers are also preferring solo destination routes and slow travel experiences.

“They are taking more time for their visit of each particular area, as well as overall duration. For example, we are seeing many clients focusing their visits and stays in the north of Vietnam only, instead of rushing the itinerary to cover everything from north to south in one go,” he added.

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