Southeast Asia relies heavily on tourism. In 2019, the travel and tourism industry contributed 12.1 percent of the region’s GDP, and approximately one in ten people are employed within and around it, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC).
Nationwide-lockdowns and international border closures imposed to contain the pandemic have been detrimental for the industry across the region. There are, however, some small green shoots of recovery with a focus on domestic tourism and local spending.
Popular tourist destinations like Thailand are poised to re-open and other destinations are also considering bilateral ‘travel bubbles’, ‘green lanes’, and 'travel corridors’. Sojern, a tourism data analytics company, recently reported that online searches for Bali hotels have almost reached pre-pandemic levels based on potential re-opening early next year.
There is significant pent up demand from the consumer, and Government and Industry need to work hand in hand to shape safe reopening plans.
Co-ordinated policy response beyond borders
The industry has benefitted from economy-wide stimulus packages, with many governments introducing tourism specific relief measures. Thailand issued a domestic tourism stimulus package worth $718 million to reinvigorate domestic tourism, whereas Cambodia announced new safety guidelines and codes of conduct for tourism businesses.
Malaysia has seen a surge in domestic travel packages, while Vietnam has launched a tourism promotion campaign called "Vietnamese People Travel in Vietnam" and Singapore announced a $233 million voucher program to increase domestic consumption across the sector.
While these initiatives are welcomed by the industry, they cannot go on forever and reopen in a planned and careful way is crucial to enabling this sector to be a growth engine for Southeast Asian economies, as it was pre-Covid-19.
The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) strongly believes that further coordination amongst Asean governments, as well as partnerships with industry, will determine and map the pace of tourism recovery. Working hand in hand with industry will help accelerate the return and also drive new innovations that can be hallmarks across the industry moving forward, and establishing Asean as a role model to other parts of the world in terms of bilateral cooperation and industry-government engagement to plot the path forward.
Building confidence throughout the journey
The current situation is a public health crisis, but also a crisis of confidence at its very core. A key component of returning confidence to the travel and tourism economy is the requirement for coherent policies that enable the digital economy and foster innovation, underpinned by a commitment to security and safety.
Every traveler will be required to provide an increased level of personal data in order to travel. Now is an opportune time for Asean to focus on developing a consistent framework for personal data protection and cybersecurity. As technological advancements continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, so do the threats.
It is now critical to protect individual data, and travelers will demand assurance that digital interactions with the government and the industry remain secure.
Multiple touchpoints across the journey will also derive confidence that it is safe to travel. The first crucial interaction with the traveler will be online. According to Condor, 82 percent of global travel bookings in 2018 were completed via a website or mobile app.
Companies such as Expedia Group and Booking.com have implemented online innovations that make it easier to cancel your trip if travel circumstances change, making it easier to plan and change your mind. In addition, short term rentals in whole homes where groups can self-distance provide another level of reassurance. The booking process has been adapted to reflect these new innovations.
The decision making for the traveler will also in part be informed by initiatives across government and industry in raising health and safety standards. For example, the "Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration: SHA" project that was recently launched is a mark of quality certification of the service standards of tourism-related establishments.
Airbnb has implemented enhanced procedures and guidance on cleaning procedures for rentals, and travelers will be able to identify and book accommodations that adhere to these standards. These partnership approaches are important for the traveler.
Once a journey begins, confidence will also come from increased health, safety, and privacy across physical touchpoints. This involves two critical needs – a contactless experience from the moment you leave your home to arriving at your destination, and the ability to securely protect traveler information such as identity, health, and travel history.
Travelers will seek out destinations that have enabled and supported digital payments and commerce across all levels of the economy, with a focus on enabling contactless payment.
The ability to be able to transact with a local merchant digitally reduces some of the hygiene concerns attached to physical currency. As more tourism-related transactions go digital, it will be vital that SMEs accelerate the integration of digital capabilities into their business. There has never been a more important time to focus on bridging the digital divide.
Protecting the travel and tourism workforce
People working in the travel and tourism industry have been hard hit. One of the biggest challenges for travel and tourism employees is what lays ahead and the likely requirement for new skills to be able to succeed in the industry.
Reskilling and training to be better able to interact with the digital economy, expanded health and safety qualifications, and adapting to different customer service requirements will be part of the mix of skills required in the future.
During the pandemic, beyond its numerous customer and partner-focused support and recovery efforts, Expedia Group launched a new ‘Expedia Group Academy’ to upskill all travel and tourism workers across the sector. This free program is designed to help displaced or furloughed travel workers expand their skill sets and their professional networks.
Booking.com focused its efforts on bringing accommodation partners the tools and tailored insights they need to effectively respond to the evolving travel environment, capture new bookings, and rebuild their business.
In the Philippines, the Department of Tourism launched an online training program for the country's tourism stakeholders to stay relevant and learn to cope with the new normal.
These efforts work both ways – equipping employees to evolve and adapt, and helping instill confidence for travelers.
The unifying power of travel
In an increasingly polarised world, travel brings people together. It breaks down barriers and builds cultural understanding and connectedness. More importantly, travel and tourism are inextricably linked to economic well-being. It is therefore important to work towards a rapid and efficient recovery of the sector.
With the right political will and fast-moving partnerships, the industry will bounce back. The AIC and its member companies stand ready to help.
Jeff Paine is the managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association comprising leading internet and technology companies.