BANGKOK - Countries in South-east Asia are racing to reopen their borders as the tourist season descends.
First off the block was Thailand, which in July fashioned a sandbox scheme that allowed quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated foreign visitors to the popular resort island of Phuket.
The moderate success of the scheme, which the Thai authorities said resulted in over 70,000 arrivals spending 2.14 billion baht (S$86 million) on the island, spurred the authorities into taking the next big step.
From Monday (Nov 1), vaccinated travellers entering the kingdom by plane from 46 countries and territories will not have to undergo quarantine.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed it best when he said that if Thailand acted too slowly, foreign tourists would simply head elsewhere.
"(We) must act quickly but still cautiously, and not miss the opportunity... over the next few months to support the many millions of people who earn a living from our tourism, travel and entertainment sectors as well as the many other related sectors," he said in a televised speech earlier this month.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of announcements and activity in South-east Asia, with several countries loosening or removing quarantine measures put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this month, after delays and false starts, Indonesia reopened its popular resort island of Bali to international visitors, and Vietnam, Cambodia and Malaysia are planning similar moves.
Tourism has been a key economic driver in the region. More than 130 million international visitors were reported prior to the pandemic and 42 million jobs depended on the sector, said Mr Steven Schipani, principal tourism industry specialist with the Asian Development Bank's South-east Asia department. The region also saw close to one billion domestic trips annually then.
"Overall, travel and tourism comprised an estimated 12.1 per cent of South-east Asia's gross domestic product and was a major source of foreign exchange," he said.
This amounted to over US$380 billion (S$511 billion) in 2019, and also explains the "sudden rush" by nations to reopen during this season, said travel consultancy Pear Anderson founding partner Hannah Pearson.
"All countries have been keeping an eye on one another's moves, and many tourism ministers have noted that they don't want to be left behind their Asean peers," she said, adding that there is a sense of urgency to salvage what is left of the year.
"Governments are also waking up to the fact that if they do not reopen to international tourists in 2021, there will be little left of the tourism industry - stakeholders are hanging on by a thread," Ms Pearson noted.
In an interview with CNBC last week, Malaysia's Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister Nancy Shukri said her country did not want to lose out as neighbouring states eased border curbs on international travellers.
Next month, Malaysia will be reopening Langkawi to fully vaccinated travellers under a pilot scheme in which visitors need not quarantine but will have to stay on the island for at least three days.
"We are observing what other countries are doing, see where we can fit in and try to make sure that we are not left behind," she said.
Confidence in opening up borders has gone hand in hand with vaccination rates, which are on the rise in the region, putting intense pressure on governments to staunch economic losses, said Mr Jay Harriman, senior director at strategic advisory firm Bower Group Asia.
The general shift in attitude on dealing with the pandemic, where a number of countries, including Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, have abandoned their initial "zero-Covid-19" strategy in favour of an approach to "live with Covid-19" as an endemic disease, has also been an important factor behind the recent changes, said Mr Harriman.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) told The Straits Times many countries have started to recognise that blanket border closures do not work and will only further delay the recovery of their tourism sectors and economies.
"As Covid-19 becomes endemic, international travellers' mobility must be enabled in order to salvage the region's economy," said its spokesman.
Europe and the United States threw open their doors early this year but a number of factors made it difficult for Asean countries to do the same, said experts.
"In general, Asia has taken a very cautious approach to restarting tourism," said Mr Schipani.
Travel analyst Gary Bowerman, who is based in Kuala Lumpur and is the director of Check-in Asia, noted that the year-end peak season for the region is targeted at travellers from Western countries, where winter has begun.
"But the main reason is that we got hit by the Delta variant for most of 2021, and vaccinations have taken some time to gain momentum," he said.
Initial delays and supply shortages in vaccine drives also caused some nations to lag behind in reopening plans, said Mr Bowerman.
This included Thailand, which earlier this year channelled vaccines to Phuket for the island's reopening, but fell short in providing jabs for the rest of the country.
The situation has improved in recent months, but still, only around 42 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated.
Cambodia, too, has jump-started its vaccination programme and about 80 per cent of its population are now fully vaccinated.
This has set the foundation for a tourism reboot. Cambodia will start with quarantine-free travel for fully vaccinated foreign tourists to two seaside provinces at the end of next month.
Singapore, which has one of the world's highest inoculation rates, with more than 80 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, has adopted a Vaccinated Travel Lane scheme, which allows quarantine-free travel with select countries. There are now 11 such lanes, with the most recent additions being Australia and Switzerland.
Not all Asean countries, though, have succeeded in ramping up their vaccination drives.
Despite a rise in available vaccines, the inoculation rate in the Philippines has slowed in recent weeks, due in part to hesitancy in take-up, reported local media.
Only about 25 per cent of the population are fully vaccinated, and the country has not announced any tourism reopening plans.
No more 'buy and fly'
Analysts expect the situation will be different for the region's tourism sector in the foreseeable future.
Travel could cost more, for one thing, with mandatory Covid-19 tests and procedures. Consumer demand could also veer towards private and smaller tours instead of traditional mass-based tourism.
"While everyone is competing to open up, we still don't know what the demand level will be," said Mr Bowerman.
The different entry procedures that each country has in place for international travellers - ranging from compulsory insurance coverage, to the kind of Covid-19 testing and paperwork needed, and even specific lists of authorised travel agents and hotels that visitors must use - could dampen enthusiasm for international travel.
"Travel is not going back to the 'buy and fly' nature, where you select a hotel and flight and just go. There are so many complex procedures," said Mr Bowerman.
Even for places where quarantine has been removed, in some cases, other obstacles remain, including competition from non-Asean destinations with fewer entry requirements or a lack of direct flights to some of the proposed destinations, said Ms Pearson.
"Bali is a great example of this as it is officially opened to international travellers, but lacks international connections," she said.
Bali reopened to foreign visitors from 19 countries about two weeks ago, but a lack of international flights to the resort island has meant tourist numbers have been muted so far.
An additional challenge is that businesses in the sector across the region will need time to rebuild.
"Governments are raring to restart the tourism engine, but the infrastructure to serve the increasing demand will need more time to recover, as some workers have moved jobs and many businesses have closed permanently," said Mr Harriman.
Missing china market
Once the region's largest tourist source, Chinese tourists are not about to return so soon as curbs on outbound travel remain at home.
Mr Harriman said: "China's restrictions on outbound tourism will limit potential upside to reopenings in Asean, especially in popular markets like Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore."
Thailand, for instance, saw the number of Chinese tourists fall by 88.6 per cent in 2020, compared with the previous year.
"We have to accept that China is not opening its borders any time soon and the focus should be on other markets," said Mr Bowerman.
He added that despite vaccinating around 80 per cent of its population, China will likely keep its border control measures tight to prevent any disruptions to the Winter Olympics in Beijing next February.
Opening up as a region
As Asean leaders convened virtually for their annual summit this week, a number of them called for member nations to reopen regional travel and tourism.
"If all Asean countries immediately facilitate the mobility of people safely, the wheels of the economy can move again," said Indonesian President Joko Widodo on Monday, adding that the Asean Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework, initiated by Jakarta last year to facilitate the resumption of essential travel in the region, "needs to be implemented immediately".
A standardised European Union digital Covid-19 certificate was a driving force behind the restoration of international travel in Europe earlier this year, said the WTTC, noting that Asean would need to coordinate and harmonise its measures for more reciprocal travel arrangements.
Ms Pearson said limited reciprocal openings between Asean countries could be a stumbling block for the region's tourism recovery. This is especially so as one of the most important tourist source markets for the region in 2019 were member countries themselves.
She believes there are a couple of reasons for this.
Many South-east Asian governments, she said, are looking to draw tourists who traditionally stay longer and spend more, and those from "Western countries tend to fit that bill".
She also pointed to the disparity in Covid-19 responses and vaccination roll-outs in the region.
"This means that matching countries on the same level in the region has been extremely difficult, and has prevented the Asean Travel Corridor from being put into action despite it being proposed in late 2020," she said.
But Mr Harriman remains optimistic, believing the situation could soon change.
"Some Asean countries are just now hitting high enough vaccination rates to consider loosening restrictions on their neighbours. We expect more reciprocal reopenings in the coming months if vaccination rates continue to tick upwards and healthcare systems aren't overburdened by new cases," he said.