Coronavirus News Asia

Obscure outlook for SE Asian tourism revival

If Southeast Asian nations aspire to avoid prolonged pandemic-driven recessions, many will need to open their closed borders and welcome back the foreign tourists that buoyed their economies before Covid-19.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak began in January, which first severely cut the number of Chinese tourists in the region and then hit other nationalities as the virus spread to Europe and North America in March, tourist arrivals have dwindled to historic lows.  

The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) forecasts global tourist arrival numbers to fall by as much as 80% this year, resulting in lost revenues to the tune of US$1.2 trillion. Southeast Asian tourism has been the second hardest-hit region in the world trailing only Northeast Asia, according to UNWTO.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism this week estimated that the sector, worth around $4.3 billion in 2018, will lose $3 billion in 2020. Tourism numbers in Vietnam were down 98% year on year in May. Thailand, projected to see an economic contraction of at least -5.3% this year, officially estimates its tourism-related losses could be over $40 billion.

In 2018, tourism accounted for 32% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Cambodia, 20% in Thailand and 9% in Vietnam, according to UNWTO. The sector accounts for 6.7% of employment in Cambodia and around 9% in Thailand and Vietnam.

The Southeast Asian states have been fortunate from a health perspective. Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have all reported relatively small numbers of Covid-19 infections compared to regional neighbors. So far there have been only 58 deaths in Thailand, and reportedly none in Cambodia and Vietnam, according to government figures.

That should work in their favor once international travel recommences and tourists seek perceived as safe lightly infected countries. All international flights to Thailand are banned until at least June 30.

Passengers walk through the terminal in a near-empty Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok on June 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Vietnam looks set to open progressively, with Phu Quoc island and some resort towns opening later this month, but most other sites not until later in the year.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand last weekend designed a new campaign to rebrand itself as a “trusted destination”, an effort to attract young affluent travelers, Reuters reported.

None of the three countries expect normal tourism services to resume until at least later this year, with hopes of a revival during the November-January peak season.

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