As Asia’s ‘travel bubbles’ fail to materialize, travelers face prospect of long winter at home

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Bangkok (CNN) — With the end of the year approaching, travelers holding onto hope they may still get to enjoy a quick winter escape in Asia are facing some hard truths right now.

Christmas on the beach in Phuket? Highly unlikely — unless you’re willing to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks first.

Lunar New Year in Bali next February? Don’t book those flights just yet.

The list of countries in the region that are off limits to most leisure travelers remains long and, according to the experts, is likely to remain that way for some time yet.

In early May, optimism was high that once governments were able to contain their Covid-19 outbreaks they would begin opening up to other nations that too had a handle on their case numbers.

Dubbed “travel bubbles,” the concept was first raised by Australia and New Zealand, then quickly picked up by other nations as a possible way to get international travelers flying again. This would give tourism-dependent economies a chance to recoup the millions of dollars in losses racked up this year.

For a number of reasons, those bubbles — also called air corridors — have yet to materialize in Asia.

In what’s been referred to as a twisted game of “Whack-a-Mole,” the virus continues to rear its invisible head in fresh waves, leading most governments to shy away from actually moving beyond the discussion phase.

“Travel bubbles are extremely complex to implement, much greater than what people may have thought originally,” says Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

“Each respective destination needs to have well tested and tried protocols and the understanding that visitors from each country will respect them. They also need to ensure that they have a robust health care system to handle any potential resurgences of cases as well as good contact tracing capabilities.”

Thailand announces long-stay tourist visa

A masseuse waits for customers at an empty massage parlor on Koh Tao, a popular Thai island, on August 21.

A masseuse waits for customers at an empty massage parlor on Koh Tao, a popular Thai island, on August 21.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/AFP via Getty Images

That’s not to say baby steps aren’t being taken.

Almost daily, new headlines announce the lifting of travel restrictions in the region, as well as the resumption of international flights.

But if you look at the fine print, few of these changes mean much for leisure travelers, but rather apply to business travelers and foreign residents.

“I think the idea that we’re going to go back to borders being thrown open any time soon is just not going to happen,” says Gary Bowerman, founder of Check-in Asia, a tourism-focused research and marketing company.

The pressure to stem the economic loss while balancing the risk of a virus resurgence remains heavy. In addition to nations being afraid they will import further cases of Covid-19 by opening the doors to tourists, Bowerman points out that “it’s very difficult to get other countries to agree to let travelers come because they know at some point they’re going to be coming back and could reimport the virus.”

Australia, for instance, has some of the strictest rules in the world, banning its citizens from traveling abroad for leisure tourism. Thousands of Australians are now stranded overseas due to a cap on international arrivals, with only 4,000 allowed in per week.
“Travel bubbles are extremely complex to implement, much greater than what people may have thought originally. ”

Mario Hardy, PATA CEO

Bowerman says Singapore is leading the way in Southeast Asia when it comes to the gradual opening of borders. The city-state has set up fast tracks for short-term business travelers, allowing visitors from specific countries to avoid quarantine.

But even then, “they’re saying general travel is unlikely until even the second quarter of next year,” he notes.

In terms of which countries face the most pressure to reopen, Eunice Aw, Singapore director of global hospitality consulting firm Horwath HTL, singles out Thailand.

“Thailand’s travel business is probably one of the hardest hit among the Southeast Asian countries given that it welcomed the highest number of international visitors, at close to 40 million, in 2019,” she tells CNN Travel.

“Well-known for its cuisine, culture and beaches, it has been a perennial favorite with tourists from all over the globe.”

According to the World Bank, tourism normally makes up nearly 15% of Thailand’s GDP. The country has fared well in the battle against coronavirus, going 101 days without reporting a locally transmitted case, until early September.

It remains closed to international tourists, but that could soon change. The government announced this week it’s creating a special 90-day long-stay visa for international tourists, a plan it hopes to implement by October.

Deputy government spokesperson Traisuree Taisaranakul says the special tourism visa will be available for foreigners intending to stay in Thailand for a long period and will cost 2,000 baht ($64). Requirements include quarantining in a hotel room or hospital for 14 days.

Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Suttasak Supasorn tells CNN Travel any hotel can receive these special tourists, “as long as they are certified by the Ministry of Public Health.”

“We hope to start this as soon as October but this also depends on the demand side as well,” he says.

Once travelers complete their 14 days of quarantine and their Covid-19 test is negative, they can travel all around Thailand.

“After the end of quarantine, they will be treated just like Thai nationals who return from abroad,” says Suttasak. “We have received some positive interest, especially from the European market. Our representatives around the world have received enquiries.”

Elsewhere in the region: A mixed response to reopening

Though closed to international tourism, Bali remains open to domestic tourists.

Though closed to international tourism, Bali remains open to domestic tourists.


Prior to the pandemic, Vietnam was one of the region’s fastest growing tourism destinations. According to a 2019 report from the World Bank, it capitalized on surging global and regional demand over the previous three years, allowing it to achieve record growth in terms of both international and domestic visitors.

“More than 15 million foreigners now visit Vietnam each year, compared to only 4 million a decade ago, alongside roughly 80 million domestic traveler-trips, which have similarly quadrupled in number over the past 10 years,” said the report.

“I think the idea that we’re going to go back to borders being thrown open any time soon is just not going to happen. ”

Gary Bowerman, Check-in Asia

In recent days, Vietnam’s government has expressed an interest in opening air corridors with its neighbors, but nothing concrete has been announced as of yet.

International commercial flights into Vietnam from several Asian destinations resumed this month, however, the flights are not yet open to leisure tourists.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong officials confirmed to CNN Travel that they’re currently exploring possible travel corridors with eleven countries that have close economic/tourism ties and where the epidemic has stabilized.

These are: Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France, Switzerland, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore.

An inter-departmental team has reportedly been set up to discuss the proposal with the countries on its list.

But proving just how challenging it is to actually solidify such proposals, officials from South Korea’s Tourism Ministry told CNN Travel this week that they have no plans to reopen to international tourism yet and there are no plans or discussions about a possible travel bubble, either.

As for Japan — another travel favorite that was gearing up for a huge tourism windfall following years of preparations to host the now postponed Summer Olympics — no leisure tourism reopening plans have been announced. The country has only just started allowing reentry to some foreign residents.
The Indonesian island of Bali, meanwhile, had planned to reopen to international tourism on September 11, which would have allowed them to capitalize on the Chinese Golden Week holiday in early October. But that plan was shelved as Covid-19 cases continued to rise in the country.

“You can set a hard deadline to try to reopen tourism but you’ve still got to negotiate the agreement in the current context for people to come,” says Bowerman.

“The problem was that Bali doesn’t really set the reopening rules — that’s the Indonesian government. They’d have to negotiate with the Chinese government and the Chinese government clearly was not going to allow its tourists to go to Indonesia when the case rates are so high.”

Chinese tourists staying home

Tourists pose for photos on September 1 in Shanghai. As Chinese stay home, domestic tourism is thriving.

Tourists pose for photos on September 1 in Shanghai. As Chinese stay home, domestic tourism is thriving.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images AsiaPac/Getty Images

Prior to Covid-19 grounding all tourists, China was the world’s largest market for outbound travel, leaping from 4.5 million travelers in 2000 to 150 million in 2018.

The country accounted for $277 billion or 16% of the world’s total $1.7 trillion international tourism spending, according to the UNWTO.

Now, with the virus under control, they’re traveling within their own borders as those who do head overseas have to quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

Travel analytics company Forward Keys released a report in August predicting that domestic air travel in China would reach a full recovery by the start of September.

“In the second week of August, domestic arrivals at Chinese airports reached 86% of 2019 levels and bookings (issued air tickets) hit 98%, with most being for travel in mid to late August,” said the report.

However, those hoping Chinese tourists will be ready to head abroad for the 2021 February Spring Festival/Lunar New Year period are likely out of luck.

“In my personal opinion, I believe mainland Chinese travelers will likely spend their New Year traveling domestically and that international destinations won’t benefit from the vast amount of overseas trips from China until 2022,” says PATA’s Hardy.

Maldives defies the norm

In the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, Maldives is made up of more than 1,000 islands, which tourists travel between on seaplanes.

Not everyone is keeping their doors shut to international tourists. The Maldives is a rare outlier in that it’s now welcoming all visitors, from all countries, with no quarantine restrictions.

The island nation reopened on July 15. Visitors are only allowed on the resort islands and they need to book their entire stay in one registered establishment.

Initially, medical certificates showing a negative Covid-19 PCR test were not required, but the government changed that rule from September 11, due to a rise in case numbers.

The country is in a far better position than most to isolate visitors. The Maldives is made up of 26 atolls filled with over 1,000 islands occupied by dozens of resorts, all spread out over 90,000 square kilometers.

Most of the islands developed for tourism feature just a single resort. This means if guests or staff come into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19, in theory they will be easily traceable, while the potential for spread is kept to a minimum.

Europe’s summer experiment

Some travelers are expressing anger after the UK ordered a 14-day quarantine to people coming from Spain, where there is a recent rise in Covid-19 cases. CNN’s Atika Shubert reports.

Asia’s cautious approach to reopening contrasts starkly with that of Europe, where many countries opened their borders in June to ensure tourism businesses would have some income over the popular summer months.

A recent report by the UNWTO states that 115 destinations (53% of all destinations worldwide) have eased Covid-19 related travel restrictions for international tourism, as of September 1.

Out of the 115, 44 are from Europe (including 25 of 26 Schengen Member States), 27 from the Americas, 26 from Africa, 13 from Asia and the Pacific and five from the Middle East.

“Europe is the region in which more destinations (81%) have eased travel restrictions,” says the report. “On the contrary, in Asia and the Pacific destinations are taking longer to ease restrictions with 28% having eased.”

When asked about the regional disparities, Bowerman notes that summer tourism is not just a lifestyle but part of the culture in Europe, while the ghosts of past outbreaks linger in Asia.

“It was very important economically, they needed that,” he says of Europe.

“But when you look at Asia there are a number of reasons the countries have been more reticent — it’s very hard to generalize but, (many) countries are more risk averse with this virus, basically because of previous experiences with SARS and then, more recently, with MERS.

“We’ve had Covid-19 spikes that spooked the region — I think the Beijing spike back in June, for example, really put back onto the agenda that China hadn’t stamped out the virus, even though it has since.”

Vietnam too had its own scare in July, just several weeks after the resumption of domestic tourism. A 57-year-old man tested positive for Covid-19 in Da Nang, a popular tourism destination. This led to the evacuation of 80,000 people from the city.
But Europe’s summer experiment was far from smooth. As Covid-19 case numbers rose and fell, there were many flip-flops on quarantine rules and flight restrictions, often leaving travelers stranded or wondering if their booked holiday would actually go ahead as planned. (More on that here.)
Countries including Greece and Croatia, largely spared by the first Covid-19 wave, saw fast rises in case numbers in August as tourists took summer vacations following the reopening of Europe’s internal borders in June.

Looking ahead to 2021

For the businesses in Asia that rely on tourism, the longer borders stay closed, the less likely they are to survive.

“The general mood amongst the private sector is grim,” says Hardy.

“Many businesses have already closed, and several others do not have the financial capability to sustain their business beyond 2020. The private sector across the region is putting pressure on their respective governments to either open borders or alternatively support them and their employees until they reopen borders.”

Bowerman notes that businesses closing will affect the overall travel experience moving forward.

“It’s very difficult, we’ve almost lost three quarters of 2020 now we’ve got one quarter left and there’s been very little progress,” he says of plans to reopen borders to tourism.

“To set up for 2021, things have got to happen quite quickly and that doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. We have no idea what the actual damage on the travel infrastructure will be at that point. How many hotels, airlines, tour operators and travel agents will have gone bust? The travel infrastructure will be seriously diminished and that will have an impact on how people can actually travel.”

Additional reporting by CNN’s Kocha Olarn, Isaac Yee, Yoonjung Seo, Shawn Deng and Tamara Hardingham-Gill.

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