MANILA (REUTERS) - Two years after tourism in South-east Asia ground to a halt, travellers are getting back on planes as entry and Covid-19 quarantine rules are lifted in the region, but a full recovery will be slow and some long-time hotspots are falling out of favour.
International airline bookings to South-east Asia reached 38 per cent of pre-pandemic levels by late March, according to travel firm ForwardKeys. They were at less than 10 per cent of 2019 levels at the start of the year.
Singapore and the Philippines led a sharp uptick in bookings.
"We are the first to cut all the red tape," said Philippines tourism minister Bernadette Romulo-Puyat. "Tourists are quite happy because upon arrival, they are free to go."
These countries now require vaccinated travellers to only perform a rapid antigen test before arrival, whereas more complicated requirements in Thailand have knocked the former tourist favourite out of the top league.
The ForwardKeys data showed Singapore and Philippines bookings were at 72 per cent and 65 per cent of 2019 levels, respectively, while Thailand was at just 24 per cent.
"The on-arrivals PCR can cost 2,000-2,500 baht (S$81-S$101) and can cost a lot especially for groups, (making) people hesitant to travel," said Ms Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association.
"If another country does not have entry requirements, people would rather go there… less hassle."
Bookings are a forward-looking indicator, and arrival figures also include returning locals.
Singapore and the Philippines have large outbound markets compared to Thailand, said Mr Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst.
Asia, though, is lagging a recovery in other regions including Europe, which eased restrictions months ago.
Domestic and international traffic within the Asia Pacific this year will only reach 68 per cent of 2019 levels and hit pre-pandemic traffic by 2025, a year behind the rest of the world, the International Air Transport Association said.
For example, visitors to Singapore surged nearly four times in February from a year earlier, when the city-state had restricted entry.
But that was just 9 per cent of arrivals in February 2020 and included an influx of holders of work visas from Malaysia and India.
Thailand will take until 2026 to make a full recovery, the governor of its central bank said on Monday. In 2019, tourism accounted about 12 per cent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
Travel and tourism in South-east Asia - known for its white sand beaches, historical architecture and warm climate - contributed US$380.6 billion (S$519 billion) to the region's GDP in 2019, or 11.8 per cent of the total, according to World Travel & Tourism Council.
No Chinese tourists
The profile of international travellers to South-east Asia also has shifted. Once making up Asia's largest group of travellers, Chinese tourists are stuck at home due to strict lockdowns.
More than a quarter of the 40 million tourists who had visited Thailand in 2019 were Chinese. This year, the country expects between 5 million and 10 million international arrivals from places like Malaysia and other South-east Asian neighbours.
Japan, which remains shut to tourists itself, has seen only small numbers of travellers to South-east Asia, while Russia's invasion of Ukraine has kept away the typically large number of Russian tourists in the region.
A third of the travellers to Southeast Asia so far this year were from Europe, up from 22 per cent in 2019, while those from North America have more than doubled to 21 per cent from 9 per cent in 2019, according to ForwardKeys. Travellers from Asia made up just 24 per cent so far this year, versus 57 per cent in 2019.
"Things changed a lot for the better over the last month. We are seeing a boom in bookings," said Mr Rabil Lian, a tour guide with a top Singaporean travel agency, who recently got his job back after filling a temporary government job through the pandemic.
Mr Lian, 51, led five tour groups to Europe in the past four months, and said Australia was becoming a popular destination as well. But he said many were waiting for Japan and Taiwan to ease rules.
In Vietnam, foreign tourists nearly doubled in the first quarter this year from a year earlier. But the country, which lifted nearly all curbs only last month, expects just over a quarter of the international arrivals it saw in 2019.
"I saw all the famous food stores were still there as they have domestic demand and didn't feel like there was a huge gap left by (the lack of) tourism over the last two years," said Mr Justin Ong, a Singaporean journalist who visited Vietnam last month, his first trip since the pandemic hit.