Southeast Asian tourist spots are open, but visitors are scarce

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Indonesia reopened the island of Bali to fully vaccinated tourists from 19 countries in October. But only two foreign nationals have arrived this month – both by sea – and its airport does not yet receive international flights.

Bali, one of the world’s most popular destinations, is among several tourism hotspots in Southeast Asia that have reopened – at least technically – to international visitors in recent weeks. For local hotels, tour operators and other businesses whose revenues were wiped out at the start of the pandemic, the news initially brought a hint of hope that 2021 could end on a high note.

But traveling to these destinations from other countries is such a business – amid the rules, fees, lack of flights and the lingering uncertainty surrounding new outbreaks – that very few people have bothered.

“For everyone but the most determined, it’s a pretty complicated process to plan a short vacation,” Stuart McDonald, co-founder of Travelfish.org, a guide to Southeast Asia, talks about international travelers looking to vacation in the region.

“There will be determined people who will understand,” added Mr. McDonald, who lives in Bali. “But for anything large-scale, we still have some time to wait. “

Bali, where tourism made up more than half of the pre-pandemic economy, had more than six million international arrivals in 2019. But so far this year that number is only 45, said Dayu Indah, head of the marketing division of the island’s official office. the tourist office. All these travelers arrived by sea at the port of Benoa, on the way to the international airport.

“Where they come from, I don’t know,” Ms. Indah said. “Whether they are tourists or expatriates, I have no details.”

The number of recent arrivals to other tourist hotspots in Southeast Asia is not as extreme, but it is still miserable by pre-pandemic standards.

In Malaysia, only a few hundred foreign tourists have visited the resort island of Langkawi since the government partially opened it to visitors this fall – far less than the thousands a local development authority had forecast.

In Thailand, more than 100,000 foreign visitors arrived in November as part of a no-quarantine entry program for fully vaccinated tourists from dozens of countries. But the total number of arrivals to the country for the year – less than 270,000 – is still a tiny fraction of the 40 million who came in 2019.

In Vietnam, foreign tourists started sink by tens as part of pilot programs in November, but these figures are far from the 1.8 million international arrivals the country recorded in November 2019, according to official data. The programs were started before the discovery of the Omicron variant and the number of cases in the country has reached a new high.

Part of the problem for Southeast Asia’s tourism industry is that China, a major source of visitors, has placed so many restrictions on its citizens traveling abroad – including a 14-day quarantine. when they return – very few of them leave.

Another problem is the lack of direct flights. Cambodia, for example, reopened its doors to international travelers last month and lifted the quarantine for those who are fully vaccinated and undergo testing. But most travelers outside of Asia who want to visit the country are expected to transit through aviation hubs elsewhere in the region, such as Malaysia, McDonald said. This means additional Covid screenings.

“It’s just too complicated,” he said. “You are stuck in quarantine and you test positive. Who wants to have a vacation like this?

As for Bali, the reasons for not visiting include not only the lack of direct international flights, but also the 10-day quarantine in Indonesia for fully vaccinated people and the documents needed to obtain a business visa. (Tourist visas have been suspended.)

Ms Indah said Bali was currently focusing on domestic tourists, and 12,000 of them arrived by plane last weekend.

The island has prepared as much as possible for an upturn in international tourism, she added. More than 90% of residents have been fully vaccinated and more than 2,000 facilities have successfully passed a Covid-specific health and safety inspection.

“But if we are talking about opening the borders, opening the country, the authority lies with the central government, and it’s not easy, I’m sorry to say it,” she said. “There are a lot of considerations to consider. “

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