Fragile prospects for recovery of international travel

Wednesday, 2021-03-31 11:40:56
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The Teri Mangrove Beach in Batam, Indonesia. (Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)
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NDO – Accelerated COVID-19 vaccination campaigns have allowed many countries around the world to plan for opening doors to international travellers. In addition to stimulating domestic tourism demand, countries are also paying attention to welcoming back foreign visitors in a bid to soon revive the “non-smoke” industry.

After more than a year of travel restrictions due to the raging pandemic, travellers all over the world are looking forward to good news from vaccination campaigns, an important factor that can help “activate” the return of travel activities. As COVID-19 vaccination is stepped up, many countries that are heavily dependent on tourism revenue have promptly designed solutions in preparation for the opening of doors to international tourists. Indonesia, with its resort “paradises”, is planning to reopen two tourism sites in Batam and Bintan (Riau Islands) to foreign visitors from April 21, and then Bali Island in June or July. The reopening of destinations for foreign tourists in the Southeast Asian country can be done gradually, with the condition that the number of COVID-19 infections is under control. The Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy is also finalising plans on a “tourism bubble” or “tourist corridor”. Meanwhile, Thailand, which has a developed tourism industry in the region, is also negotiating a “tourism bubble” with other countries to restart travel activities once more people are vaccinated. Thai authorities have given the green light to Phuket, the country’s largest resort island, to directly receive tourists who have been vaccinated from July, after 70% of its residents get immunised. Accordingly, foreigners who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed to travel there without quarantine. Thailand is targeting to permit five resort locations to exempt visitors from quarantine by the fourth quarter of this year.

“Vaccine passports” are an issue of great concern to many countries and are considered a “lifebuoy” for the tourism sector. Thailand’s special group on COVID-19 prevention and control said that those who have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine in the country will receive a certificate as a “vaccine passport” to carry wherever they go. Thailand is working hard to safely reopen its borders, as well as to boost economic and tourism activities, once 50-60% of its population has been vaccinated against COVID-19. In Europe, the European Parliament (EP) is expected to approve the “vaccine passport” in a plenary session this June. The European Commission (EC) has proposed the application of a digital certificate on travel safety aiming to help restore freedom of travel within the bloc this summer for citizens who have been vaccinated, have a negative PCR test or have recovered from COVID-19. The European parliamentarians have adopted the EC proposal via an emergency procedure. Some European countries also have developed their own plans to revive the tourism industry. Portugal started to establish medical certificates in the Madeira Archipelago without waiting for the European Union (EU)’s common regulation to take effect. Spain said it could reopen the door to international travel in the spring, if 30-40% of the population get vaccinated. The country is working with the EC to develop tools to ensure safe travel, including “vaccine passport”, as well as planning a pilot application of these tools.

Preparatory plans for the welcoming of foreign visitors have been introduced by many countries together with domestic tourism stimulus policies. The Russian government is expected to spend about US$27.2 million in the new phase of the refund programme to support domestic tourism. The Australian government has announced that it will subsidise half-price airfares on some domestic routes to encourage travelling during Easter and the winter holidays to come. With the new support package, people are encouraged to visit domestic destinations and spend more on resort services, thus helping the domestic tourism industry to come round. Leading US corporations in the aerospace, tourism and aviation sectors have joined with the country’s aviation union to propose the administration of President Joe Biden grant interim medical certificates regarding COVID-19 in order to promote the recovery of the tourism industry.

However, the tourism industry is still faced with many challenges with the emergence of new variants of SARS-CoV-2, which makes it more difficult to request for a “vaccine passport”, not to mention a number of arising issues related to the protection of personal data, the implementation time limit, as well as the avoidance of discrimination against the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), nearly a third of tourist destinations worldwide remain completely closed to international tourists due to concerns about new variants of SARS-CoV-2.

The world witnessed the worst state in the history of global tourism as the volume of international travellers dropped by one billion (74%), causing economic losses of up to US$1.3 trillion, 11 times higher than the damage reported in 2009 due to the global financial crisis. Efforts to revive the “non-smoke” industry are being emboldened by the positive news from the COVID-19 vaccination campaign; however, the recovery prospects remain fragile as it depends greatly on the control of the pandemic.