BANGKOK - Thailand took a gamble in July by opening the resort island of Phuket to vaccinated foreign tourists while the region was reeling from a resurgence of Covid-19 infections. It paid off.
As at Wednesday (Sept 29), the quarantine-free vacation programme had attracted 38,289 international arrivals, out of which only 0.3 per cent tested positive for the virus.
The scheme generated 1.63 billion baht (S$65.7 million) in revenue from July to August.
While that may be a drop in the bucket compared with the 470 billion baht earned in 2019 before the pandemic, the Phuket Sandbox is spawning similar schemes elsewhere as lockdown-weary economies try to find safe ways to restart their tourism industries.
Nearby Vietnam is hoping to do the same with the southern resort island of Phu Quoc, where all locals are expected to be fully vaccinated by the end of this month.
Under the trial, inoculated foreign tourists from lower-risk countries and regions like the United States, Australia and Europe would be allowed to return in phases, starting with chartered flights from Nov 20.
They will stay in approved resorts and venture out to selected destinations with their tour agencies, to dive, golf, take an over-water cable car, and see how the island's famous pearls are farmed.
Unlike in Phuket, where travellers are allowed to venture anywhere in Thailand after holidaying on the island for 14 days, the visitors to Phu Quoc will spend their entire vacation there.
Indonesia is similarly mulling over "baby steps" towards reopening Bali to foreign travellers after several false starts.
Its tentative plan is to confine them to the island's "safe zones" in Nusa Dua, Ubud and Sanur.
In Malaysia, the island of Langkawi opened on Sept 16 to vaccinated domestic holidaymakers from the mainland.
Nineteen months into the pandemic, policymakers trying to revive a travel industry and related sectors, which lost an estimated US$2.4 trillion (S$3.3 trillion) globally last year, are trying to find the right balance among competing demands: What restrictions are travellers willing to tolerate for a holiday? What type of hygiene standards makes them feel comfortable? What level of risk are locals willing to accept to save their livelihoods?
Significantly, the momentum to restart international tourism is growing even though only three out of the 10 countries in Asean have fully vaccinated the majority of their populations.
A common thread running through these test runs is self-contained destinations like islands, where access can be easily controlled and any potential outbreak confined to a locale.
"Everyone is still learning," says Ms Sarah Mathews, who heads media partnerships in Asia-Pacific at travel platform Tripadvisor.
"I like the idea of a sandbox. I don't think they are permanent… The sandbox is a great way of helping governments as well as businesses learn - 'Is this working well?' or 'Actually we don't really need this, we can see that consumers are really comfortable'."
One thing is for sure: The demand for travel is huge. Tripadvisor data released on Sept 22 reveals that Singaporeans are determined to make up for lost travel time during the pandemic, with New York, London, Hong Kong, Dubai, Bangkok and Munich being the most popular international destinations they were searching for.
"If the history of tourism since World War II has taught us anything, it's that tourism always explodes after crises," says Dr Nuno Ribeiro, a senior lecturer at RMIT University Vietnam.
"The same will happen once the pandemic is either controlled or the world learns to live with it, much like we do with other illnesses such as the flu."
But domestic travel will continue to form the ballast for regional tourism industries in the near term.
In Bali, for example, domestic arrivals of about 6,000 a day are helping to keep downsized hotels afloat.
Already, there are signs that life is starting to return to Bali's beaches.
Nearly half of tourism experts recently surveyed by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation do not expect to see international tourism recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or later.
According to its Tourism Recovery Tracker, 82 per cent of borders within South-east Asia remains closed as at June.
In the interim, fierce price competition will likely ensue as an industry known for its high fixed costs chases fewer tourist dollars, says Dr Ribeiro.
Vietnam, slowly emerging from a crippling lockdown in its southern manufacturing hubs, is just the latest country in the region to come around to the idea that reopening the country cautiously is better than simply chasing zero infections.
Mr Bui Quoc Thai, director of the tourism department of Kien Giang province, where Phu Quoc is located, tells The Straits Times: "After several attempts to stop the outbreak and reactivate tourism, both the private and public sectors have learnt their lessons. This is the time for tourism and other industries to consider 'living with the pandemic', to fight the pandemic while developing the economy at the same time."
Ho Chi Minh City-based Lua Viet Tours has seen its staff strength whittled to 30 from 150 because of the pandemic.
Its director, Mr Nguyen Van My, treats the reopening of Phu Quoc as a warm-up to the major tourist season early next year during Tet, which coincides with Chinese New Year.
"Phu Quoc has been closed for a whole year - its facilities need to be fixed, cleaned or upgraded to serve the tourists. There are a lot of things that need to be done before opening," he tells ST.
"This pandemic is dangerous, but if we keep waiting for it to die out, we will die first from the economic crisis."
But the lull before full border reopening also gives policymakers breathing space to make their tourism policies more sustainable.
"We have really in the last 20 years gone down that economies-of-scale mass product. The only way it could work was that every year, more people had to come, and it got cheaper and cheaper," says Dr Susanne Becken, professor of sustainable tourism at Australia's Griffith University.
"Now is the chance to basically turn it back. Because if you have only half the number of people but everyone spends twice as much, you have the same income but much less churn or degradation on your community and environment."
Another upside to current travel controls is that tourists are now willing to invest more in their trips, she says.
"Nobody just jumps on the plane at the moment just for the sake of it," she said. "So if you travel, you really want a quality holiday. And I think people are prepared to pay more. They want to have more authentic experiences. They really want to make it worth their while.
"There is a potential for every destination to develop better products."
- Additional reporting by Pham Lan Phuong and Jeffrey Hutton