Rescuing the tourism industry in Asia

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Rescuing the tourism industry in Asia

I took advantage of the business downturn in recent months to travel extensively in Thailand. Criss-crossing the country from south to north and east to west, I traveled to areas I hadn’t been to before and I also refreshed my memory of sights I hadn’t visited in years.

My last trip took me to the province of Chiang Rai, the northernmost province in Thailand bordering Myanmar and Laos and one of my favorite areas in Asia. This province has so much to offer; amazing mountain scenery, majestic rivers, countryside life, provincial towns, religious and cultural sights, lovely boutique accommodation and excellent food.

I usually rent a car and drive into the mountains exploring the unknown, but on this trip I wanted to refresh my memory and traveled the regular touristic highlights. It was a privilege to be virtually alone at most tourism sights that are usually popular with foreign visitors, but a sad picture to see once again with my own eyes what damage Covid-19 and government policies are doing to tourism and the economy in this country. The Golden Triangle was deserted. I was the only visitor at The Hall of Opium, one of the best museums in Asia and there were hardly any boats taking visitors on the Mekong, a river usually bustling with activity.

There are some domestic travelers at instagrammable spots and at instagrammable properties, but most suppliers report occupancy of 10 per cent or less during the week and a bit higher during weekends. The loss of international visitors is not replaced by domestic tourists as some of the media reports want us to believe.

After the Golden Triangle I drove to Mae Sai, one of the border towns between Thailand and Myanmar and usually a major trading route. I expected limited activity because the border between both countries is temporarily closed, but I was quite shocked to see that the town has virtually shut down many of its activities. It reminded me of my first visit to Mae Sai in 1986 when Burma, as it was called at that time, was an ‘off limit’ country and border trading and crossing was forbidden.

All of us read in the media every day what damage the virus situation is doing to the global economy, but seeing such desolate areas in reality is heart breaking. It makes me think that the massive progress achieved in this part of the world over the past 30 years has been wiped out in a matter of months. I don’t want to sound pessimistic, I am convinced that there will be a positive and hopefully fast recovery when this nightmare is over, but the longer governments wait to take real action, the longer it is going to take for people to get back their livelihoods.

Many governments in Asia seem to have no recovery plans besides virus contingency measures. I do understand that plans change in line with changing situations, but I feel that some governments have no plan at all on how and when to re-open the economy and tourism. Even worse is some of the ostrich-style management applied in certain government circles, put your head in the sand and wait until it’s over.

I commend countries such as Singapore that are showing real leadership and foresight. The establishment of a travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong for all visitors, as well as the abolishment of quarantine restrictions for these travelers conditional to negative covid testing, is a way forward that can make a real change. The discussion and eventual establishment of more such travel bubbles between Asia-Pacific nations will have a positive impact on regional economies and tourism.

It is frightening to see how the virus is spreading in many countries and how second waves have resulted in renewed lockdowns. I feel sad and sorry for my friends in Europe and the Americas who have new stay-at-home orders, whose lives have been turned upside down again and for all tourism and other companies forced to hibernate with a future as uncertain today as it was eight months ago.

It is only logical that governments in Asia do not want to face the same situation with a virus spreading uncontrollably and I agree that they need to maintain restrictive policies. The balance between opening up an economy and virus containment is undoubtedly a major challenge. But to continue with present complete closure policies is not an option.

Governments must open borders and they should follow the Singaporean example, as well as put plans in place in line with recommendations by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Quarantine restrictions should be abolished conditional to pre-travel Covid-19 testing and tracing mechanisms at the destination. There won’t be 100 per cent safety, but the risk of spreading the infection will be mitigated to a large extent.

Most Asian countries have been spared large scale Covid-19 outbreaks, an outcome attributed to restrictive government policies, but also because Asians in general seem more disciplined in following government recommendations and adhering to government restrictions than in other parts of the world.

One doesn’t see demonstrations in Asia of people not wanting to wear masks. Hardly anyone objects to tracing apps. The greater good of the country and the family is weighed on par with individual freedom. This school of thought is in part due to the mentality, but also because the more autocratic regimes in Asia acted fast, were resolute and didn’t encounter major public resistance.

Governments here will give a higher priority in the short term to regional travel than to long haul travel, but they should not disregard the latter.

A big controversy surrounds Thailand’s STV long term visa scheme. Regulations are unclear and policies change constantly. The STV (special tourist visa) will not be the saviour of the tourism economy, but to look at this possibility out of the niche market perspective could see opportunities.

Thailand can be marketed as a ‘covid free sanctuary’ and I could imagine that some retirees might find the idea interesting to spend a few winter months in the sun. For resident retirees this would be a way to return to the country since they have been banned entry by the government under their previous visas. Some work from home employees and digital gypsies might also find it appealing to work out of a hotel room at a beach for a while at the best rates and conditions ever. Subject to agreeing to initial quarantine restrictions which can be completed in a luxury hotel in Bangkok, visitors are free to travel around the country for up to 90 days, extendable to 270 days.

Asian Trails Thailand has put together some long stay packages that might be of interest. Some are competitively priced and others focus on luxury stays. Asian Trails will assist with visa applications and offer customer support while in-destination. Please contact the Asian Trails Thailand team for further information about these extended breaks.

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