Travel, Aviation, Southeast Asia, Asean

Travel, Aviation

Commentary: Southeast Asia risks falling behind other regions in recovering aviation and tourism

Commentary: Southeast Asia risks falling behind other regions in recovering aviation and tourism

19/6/2021 1:19:00 AM

Commentary: Southeast Asia risks falling behind other regions in recovering aviation and tourism

While reopening borders is not currently feasible given the epidemiological situation, now is the time to start preparing for a gradual reopening ...

CONTINUED LACK OF CONSENSUSA continued lack of consensus on new air travel standards and protocols also remains an obstacle.Several ASEAN countries have still not adopted the new air travel guidelines recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) initially published in June 2020 and updated in December 2020 and again in March 2021.

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ASEAN countries and in some cases local government units within countries have adopted their own regulations, resulting in a complex patchwork of rules that can be difficult to adhere to, leading to confused passengers and unusually long airport check-in times.

Airport officer sprays disinfectant at a Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Tangerang, near Jakarta, Indonesia March 25, 2020. (File photo: Antara Fotovia REUTERS/MuhammadIqbal)Mutual recognition of COVID-19 tests and vaccines is particularly important but has so far failed to materialise.

Some countries are only recognising the vaccines they have been using in their own countries rather than all vaccines recognised by the World Health Organisation.For example, the Philippines earlier this month reduced its quarantine requirement from 14 to seven days but only for individuals vaccinated in the Philippines.

It is encouraging the Philippines has reduced quarantine times for some vaccinated travelers, but the impact will be limited until this also applies to overseas Filipinos or visitors who were vaccinated abroad.Vietnam also has been looking at reducing or waiving quarantine, currently 21 days, to vaccinated travelers but some initial reports indicate it would be limited to travelers inoculated with vaccines approved for use in Vietnam.

READ: Commentary: Why Singapore’s travel restrictions will keep changing for a while moreASEAN countries should urgently consider a mutual vaccination recognition scheme, which would help facilitate a resumption of international travel.For example, a Singapore resident vaccinated with Moderna should be able to qualify for reduced quarantine in Vietnam, Philippines or any other ASEAN country even though Singapore is the only ASEAN country using Moderna as part of its COVID-19 vaccination programme.

Reduced quarantine for all vaccinated travelers in ASEAN would be a welcome first step and could subsequently be followed by waiving quarantine requirements for vaccinated travelers.READ: Commentary: A precious chance to see my ageing mother in Germany after being separated by COVID-19

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ASEAN RISKS LAGGING BEHIND OTHER REGIONSIf ASEAN does not start putting in place the building blocks needed to support a resumption of international travel – such as mutual recognition of vaccines – there can be long-term economic implications as other regions start to gradually reopen to vaccinated travelers.

Companies in the ASEAN aviation and travel sectors will struggle to survive a prolonged closure of the international market and will also be at a competitive disadvantage to competitors in other regions as their customers from outside ASEAN discover alternative destinations.

Domestic travel is important and during the pandemic has helped companies based in those ASEAN countries with significant domestic markets.However, from a revenue and economic perspective, ASEAN is much more dependent on international tourism.The Changi Airport control tower in front of Jewel Changi Airport (Photo: Jeremy Long)

ASEAN also has a domestic market that is smaller and that has so far recovered slower than other regions.Domestic passenger traffic in ASEAN reached around 50 per cent of pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter of 2020 but declined in the first quarter of 2021 and has declined further in the second quarter of 2021 as new waves of cases led to local travel restrictions.

Domestic traffic is currently at about 30 per cent of pre-pandemic levels while globally domestic traffic is now at about 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.READ: Commentary: Some pain even as Singapore rises to the challenge of tighter COVID-19 measures

While domestic travel in ASEAN could start improving again in the third quarter of this year, it will continue to lag the global average while the more critical international market will likely remain stalled at current levels until at least the fourth quarter of this year.

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Not much can be done about the bleak outlook for the next few months except hunker down and weather the storm as ASEAN countries focus on containing the virus and rolling out vaccines.However, now is the time for the ASEAN Secretariat and ASEAN countries to step up and put in place the protocols and framework to facilitate a recovery in international travel that could start later this year and reach significant levels early next year, as vaccination rates reach herd immunity levels.

If the groundwork is not done over the next few months, the risk is an even slower recovery and an even wider gap between ASEAN and the rest of the world with potentially devastating consequences.Brendan Sobie is the founder of Singapore-based independent aviation consulting and analysis firm Sobie Aviation. He was previously chief analyst for CAPA - Centre for Aviation.

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