LONDON/SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - South-east Asia is finally, tentatively throwing off the shackles of Covid-19 and reopening for travel, with airlines filling an increasing number of seats as holiday-starved masses arrange overseas vacations for the first time in two years.
While the region lags other places such as North America and Europe that reopened sooner, the upward momentum gathered pace in April. Ticket bookings are rising as popular tourist destinations like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia allow quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers again.
"April has been a very important month for South-east Asia," said Gary Bowerman, director of travel and tourism research firm Check-in Asia. "The optimism is back, people are now thinking and talking about travelling the way they weren't before. Just look at the search volumes that are happening."
Google searches related to travel to Singapore have jumped, particularly from neighbouring Malaysia, as well as Indonesia, India and Australia, according to data tracked by economists at Maybank Investment Bank. Searches rose about 20 per cent since the last week of March.
Air passenger traffic to Singapore reached 400,000, or 31 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels, in the week ending April 17 after most travel restrictions for fully-vaccinated people were lifted at the start of the month, according to the country's civil aviation authority.
In Thailand, where international tourism contributes about 15 per cent to gross domestic product, the number of foreign visitors rose 38 per cent in March from February after a relaxation of requirements on testing and health insurance, according to the tourism ministry. Thailand eased entry rules for vaccinated travellers from April 1 and plans to replace mandatory polymerase chain reaction tests with antigen ones for foreign visitors on May 1.
The number of visitors to Thailand reached 358,364 from April 1 to April 27, according to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration. Travellers from Singapore accounted for the most, followed by Britain, India, Germany and Australia. The government said on April 27 it expects tourism arrivals to reach 6.1 million this year, compared with only 427,869 in 2021. The figure was 40 million in 2019.
Flight reservations to Singapore climbed to 68 per cent of pre-virus levels in the week of March 23, when the government said it was ditching most of its pandemic-related restrictions, according to travel data company ForwardKeys. That's an increase from 55 per cent the week before.
Singapore's Changi Airport handled 1.14 million passengers in March, the first time the figure climbed above 1 million since the start of the pandemic, after PCR tests were replaced with supervised self-swabs from Feb 22 and more countries were added to so-called vaccinated travel lanes that allowed quarantine-free entry for the inoculated.
There are expected to be 307 flights a week from Malaysia to Singapore at the end of May, more than double the 152 at the start of the year, according to data compiled by BloombergNEF.
Flights from Indonesia to the island-state will quadruple from 55 to 222, while there are set to be 190 from India versus 100 in early 2022.
High oil prices could dent the rebound by making tickets more expensive, while there are also a limited number of flights and travel options available as airlines haven't yet restored all their services.
To the north, China remains closed off and Hong Kong still has a week-long mandatory quarantine policy in place, a major deterrent to travel even after the city reopens to non-residents in May.
"There will be this initial buzz and then dying down a bit after that novelty wears off," said Hannah Pearson, Kuala Lumpur-based director of tourism consultancy Pear Anderson. "Right now, I think consumers are quite worried when they're choosing a destination and they are looking for the easiest place to go."