BANGKOK - Vietnam's airlines are getting ready to restart international flights from next month (July) even as the public remains leery about the risk of importing fresh Covid-19 cases.
Vietnam Airlines and Bamboo Airways have said they will resume flights to destinations like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - which, like Vietnam, have successfully managed to contain the pandemic within their borders - as soon as they get official approval.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on June 10 directed the Vietnamese authorities to work out the criteria for regions to which commercial flights can resume. These areas could be those which had not detected community infections for 30 consecutive days, he was cited by the Vietnamese government's online newspaper as saying. Some possible destinations are Guangzhou, Taipei, Seoul and Tokyo.
Most details are up in the air as regional governments grapple with public pressure to keep borders closed while trying to keep alive tourism industries heavily dependent on foreign dollars. Vietnam, like Thailand and Myanmar, has banned entry to foreigners until June 30, except for diplomats and other groups deemed essential.
But the airlines are raring to go. Vietnam Airlines chief executive Duong Tri Thanh told local media outlet Vnexpress last week: "Vietnam Airlines is ready to resume flights as soon as the restrictions are lifted."
The national carrier has already reinstated all pre-pandemic domestic routes, helped in part by the lifting of empty-seat restrictions that the communist government imposed earlier to enforce social distancing. The country, which quarantined arrivals en masse and went into a nationwide two-week lockdown in April, has not recorded any new community infection for over 60 days.
Locals appear concerned about the possibility of fresh infections. Three-quarters of 66,000 respondents in a survey by Vnexpress did not want international flights to be resumed at the moment.
"If it's done like this, Vietnam will soon be a mess. If the pandemic comes back, all our efforts in the past few months will be worth nothing," wrote a user going by the name of enhat4ever on the popular motoring forum Otofun.
Vietnam last month launched a domestic tourism campaign to entice locals back on the road with deep discounts on hotels and services. But it's a big question if that can make up for the lack of foreign tourists, especially where high-end accommodation is concerned.
"Middle-class Vietnamese travel a lot and they now spend much more when travelling," Mr Nguyen Trung Khanh, director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, told The Straits Times recently. Yet revenue from domestic tourism makes up 44.3 per cent of the entire tourism industry, he said.
"Covid-19 has changed the way people travel fundamentally. For example, tourists tend to choose destinations close by their homes," he said. "They prefer short trips in small groups or only with families. They tend to choose safe relaxing trips, close to nature, or gated resorts."
Regardless of whether international flights resume, international tourists will not return until countries dismantle the 14-day quarantine now imposed on all arrivals, say tourism experts.
"I cannot see how tourism would be viable with a two-week quarantine," Dr Mario Hardy, chief executive of Pacific Asia Travel Association, told ST. "There have to be other ways to ensure safety of people as they travel. To do testing, departure testing, testing at arrival, testing throughout the period (for example)."