Asia Travel Re:Set #22 – 20 Events That Defined Travel & Tourism in Asia Pacific in 2020

Hello. Welcome to Asia Travel Re:Set… and Happy New Year.

Normal service resumes next Sunday, but meanwhile I’ve revised and updated the 20 Defining Travel Events in 2020 roundup that featured in 2 parts in late September and early October.

Newer subscribers may have missed those 2 editions, and if you did read them back then - this version brings the dismal 2020 travel year fully up-to-date.

Thanks for being onboard.

Gary


Each Sunday, Gary Bowerman charts the week’s key developments for travel economies across Asia Pacific. 

If you are enjoying this issue so far, please feel free to…


20 Defining Events For Travel & Tourism in 2020

Image: Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

1) Chinese Tourism Lockout

Over the past decade, China established itself as the engine of global travel growth.

Around 155 million outbound trips were made from China in 2019 - up from 57.4 million in 2010. Although the rate of annual growth had slowed, Chinese tourists continued to boost previously low-volume visitor economies, from Antarctica to Serbia and Maldives to Sri Lanka, plus Japan, South Korea and South East Asia. 

Chinese tourism also played a frontline role in the liberalisation of short-term visa entry policies worldwide. In addition, Chinese spending power boosted the income of hoteliers, retailers, F&B outlets and travel businesses on all continents.

So a year that shut out Chinese travellers from the travel ecosystem was unthinkable. And yet China bolted its borders, and most Asia Pacific nations did likewise. 

The coronavirus outbreak in China coincided with the world preparing to welcome around 7 million mainland travellers during the week-long Chinese New Year holiday. 

On 24 January – just before Chinese New Year – the Chinese government banned travel agencies from selling domestic and outbound tours. On 26 March, China formally shut its borders to inbound visitors. 

With nowhere else to go, Chinese travellers made an estimated 3.4 billion domestic trips in 2020, including 637 million trips during the October Golden Week.

With a recent surge in cases in northern China, the country remains closed, except for returnee citizens and foreign residents with work and student visas.

Meanwhile, the world faces another Chinese New Year without Chinese tourists in February 2021.

2) IATA Sounds a Warning Bell

As airlines in China and Asia began slashing capacity, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned of a difficult year ahead.

On 6 February, it noted that global air passenger demand rose 4.2% in 2019, down from 7.3% in 2018. This "marked the first year since the global financial crisis in 2009 that passenger demand growth fell below the long-term trend of around 5.5%." The blame centred on "a softer economic backdrop, weak global trade and geopolitical tensions." 

Asia Pacific passenger traffic increased 4.5% in 2019, a slowdown from 8.5% in 2018.

Pre-pandemic warning bells were chiming.

By 20 February, the tone had changed. In an initial COVID-19 impact assessment, IATA forecast:

"A potential 13% full-year loss of passenger demand for carriers in the Asia-Pacific region… that would translate into a USD27.8 billion revenue loss in 2020 for carriers – the bulk of which would be borne by carriers registered in China." 

These figures assumed "the centre of the public health emergency remains in China." 

At its general assembly in late November, IATA noted that international air passenger demand in 2020 had fallen 89% compared to 2019. Airlines worldwide were forecast to lose USD118.5 billion, a figure expected to improve to USD38.7 billion in 2021. 

“The aviation industry is in crisis,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director-General.

3) “Go Hard, Go Early” in New Zealand

In 2020, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern easily achieved re-election. Her handling of COVID-19 was a vital factor. Predicated on scientific advice that "The best way to protect the economy is to fight this virus," Ms Ardern justifiably earned global acclaim. 

Concerned by a strong but relatively small public health system, she reacted quickly. Deciding, in her words, to "Go hard and go early," New Zealand implemented a border closure plus strict movement and public gathering restrictions in mid-March aligned with a ‘managed isolation’ programme and a proactive test, track and trace system. 

After 102 days without a domestic transmission, New Zealand suppressed a second outbreak, believed to have been imported by returnee citizens arriving from the UK. It survived the Antipodean winter without a serious spike in cases. 

New Zealand is a pragmatic case study of coronavirus risk management. It is, however, confronting the real dangers of re-importing the virus. 

A succession of positive tests by long-haul arrivals to the country in December will see New Zealand implement new entry rules on 15 January. 

4) “The Plague Ships”

The cruise sector provided early warnings of transmissibility in confined spaces. So-called “Plague Ships” with confirmed cases onboard were denied permission to dock at ports worldwide. Two particular ships remained in the spotlight for long periods.

Diamond Princess was quarantined in Yokohama Port, Japan, from 3 February to 26 March. It arrived carrying 3,711 passengers and crew, but the coronavirus had infected 712 people. Some 13 people subsequently died.

At the time, the ship was reported as the largest COVID-19 cluster outside of China. 

Several countries including the US, which counted 428 citizens on board, shuttled diplomatic efforts to evacuate passengers. In an article published on 27 April, the British Medical Journal described the Diamond Princess as "the ship that taught epidemiologists crucial lessons." 

"The Diamond Princess was described as ‘the ship that taught epidemiologists crucial lessons’." 

It was later revealed that mitigation measures undertaken onboard may have reduced the number of infections.

The second high-profile incident was Ruby Princess. 

The cruise ship departed Sydney on 8 March with 2,700 passengers and crew, and returned on 19 March. During that 11-day period, COVID-19 had been categorised as a pandemic.

Amid scenes of administrative confusion, hundreds of passengers were permitted to disembark in Sydney on 19 March without being tested, despite COVID-19 being rife on board. Some 28 people died. 

A 4-month official inquiry completed in August identified "serious," "inexcusable" and "inexplicable" mistakes by local health authorities.

5) WHO Calls COVID-19 a ‘Pandemic’

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation confirmed the planet’s worst fears: a pandemic. The cross-border spread of COVID-19 infections was increasing at an alarming rate. In the previous 2 weeks, conformed global cases had increased 13-fold, and the number of countries involved had tripled. 

Worldwide, 118,319 case cases had been recorded in 114 countries (80,955 of which were in China), and 4,291 deaths.

A psychological shift occurred immediately. The mere word ‘pandemic’, which most people only recognised from disaster movies and rarely read risk assessment reports, hot-wired a current of fear through governments worldwide.

“Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”

[Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, 11 March]

Flight bans, border closures and national lockdowns ensued on all continents. 

By the end of 2020, almost 83 million infections were recorded worldwide, with 1.8 million known deaths and more than 46 million confirmed recoveries. 

6) Tokyo Olympics Delayed Until 2021

On 24 March, Japan’s Olympic bubble evaporated. At least for 12 months. 

On that date, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics – due to take place from 24 July-9 August / 24 August-5 September – were postponed until 2021. The previous day, the WHO recorded a cumulative total of 372,755 COVID-19 cases worldwide, 1,128 of which were in Japan.  

Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games by the International Olympic Committee in 2013. Estimates vary, but it has been reported that it spent between USD10-15 billion to transform Tokyo’s sporting, transport and travel infrastructure.

Japan had set a target of 40 million visitors during the Olympic year. 

Even before the pandemic struck, that figure was rolled down. Japan welcomed a record 31.9 million visitors in 2019, but this represented just 2.2% growth from 2018 – largely due to a simmering trade dispute with South Korea that spilled into tourism. 

Stringent restrictions on entry resulted in Japan recording a 99.9% year-on-year decline in arrivals each month from April to July 2020, followed by 99.7% in August. 

The tone changed in September with new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stating that Japan must gradually reopen its travel sector, paving a pathway to host the Olympics in July-August 2021.

A renewed winter wave of infections has resulted in Japan cancelling its controversial Go To domestic travel subsidy programme, while public sentiment remains cautious about the Games taking place. 

In his New Year address, the Prime Minister said that despite “an unprecedented national crisis,” Japan would strive to host the Olympics which he argued would serve as a "symbol of global solidarity.”

7) Singapore Changi Shutters 2 Terminals

The year began positively for Singapore Changi Airport. Having handled 68.3 million passengers in 2019 – it posted 5.2% year-on-year passenger growth in January 2020. 

A dramatic slowdown began in February, and in April the airport announced that Terminal 2 operations would be suspended for 18 months from 1 May. By 12 May, a continued "sharp decline in flight movements" resulted in T4 also being shuttered. In mid-June, construction of a new T5 was postponed for "at least two years."

“In mid-June, construction of a new T5 was postponed for ‘at least two years’."

Singapore Changi Airport was opened in 1981, and corporatised as Changi Airport Group, in 2009. Over the next decade, it experienced an 84% passenger traffic increase. It has won the Skytrax World’s Best Airport award for 8 consecutive years. 

In the first 11 months of 2020, Singapore Changi handled 11.6 million passengers, with 11.05 million of those passing through its terminals from January-March. 

While Singapore has made cautious efforts to re-stimulate air travel, the travails of its award-winning airport are emblematic of the steep curve ahead for Asian aviation.

8) One-Way Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble

In late April, Australia and New Zealand jointly introduced "Travel Bubble" to the COVID-19 vernacular. Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern publicly stated they were in discussions to establish "a Trans-Tasman travel bubble." 

This would be a controlled testing of the waters between two geographically isolated island nations with a similar travel culture and strong bilateral flows for business and leisure. Neither country has land borders, which was a decisive factor. 

At the time, Australia and New Zealand seemed en route to becoming ‘COVID safe.” A high degree of complementarity existed for safe, quarantine-free travel between the two nations, even though it was not expected to begin for several months. 

A resurgence of cases in Melbourne in June altered the picture.

Rather than a bilateral agreement, the Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble commenced on 16 October as one-way only. New Zealand residents were permitted to fly quarantine-free into New South Wales, Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory. Other Australian states later joined the scheme.

Australian travellers, though, are still not permitted to enter New Zealand. 

Hopes were raised in December that a safe two-way bubble could be established in the first quarter of 2021. However, the Northern Beaches outbreak in Sydney, and the emergence of clusters elsewhere in Australia, have cast new doubts.

9) Cambodia Trials a USD3,000 Entry Deposit

First-mover advantage can backfire if the cards are played with a heavy hand. In June, Cambodia held some impressive tourism cards. A very low COVID-19 case infection rate - even today it counts just 379 total cases and zero deaths - encouraged the government to make a tourism play as a ‘COVID-safe’ destination. 

The economy was hurting badly. Cambodia welcomed 6.7 million visitors in 2019, and targeted 7 million in 2020. By June, that figure was clearly impossible, so reopening seemed a reasonable gambit.

Except Cambodia miscalculated on two fronts. 

Firstly, virtually all of its key Asian source markets prevented residents from leaving the country. So there was no demand to tap. 

Secondly, it announced a USD3,000 deposit would be required by all inbound visitors upon arrival. 

The Cambodian Ministry for Economy and Finance published a detailed list of potential expenses to justify the deposit. These included quarantine fees, COVID-19 tests, medical treatment, security services - and funeral costs.

Furthermore, Cambodia’s travel sector had not been consulted. Tour companies subsequently made clear their views. 

Subtly, the USD3,000 deposit figure was reduced, but the mishap stands out as one of 2020’s most clumsily handled attempts to restart tourism.

10) AirAsia’s Future “In Doubt”

2020 was unforgiving for airlines, especially those without a governmental credit hotline. AirAsia, South East Asia’s largest low-cost carrier, endured a tough time.

In July, an unqualified audit statement noted its debts exceeded assets by an eye-watering amount, and stated “material uncertainty related to going concern.” The company was “facing its biggest challenge in 19 years”. 

With South East Asian flight paths remaining shut since mid-March, the LCC reported its largest net loss since listing on the Malaysian stock exchange in 2004.

At the height of the crisis, before domestic air travel was permitted to recommence, analysts claimed AirAsia was burning RM120 million per month. Its stock price slumped. Operations in Japan closed, and AirAsia’s India joint venture seemed shaky.

Always the media bull, CEO Tony Fernandes responded to a CNBC interview question about how much capital was needed by saying:

“It’s a moving target. I’d be comfortable with 1 billion Ringgit, I’d be super comfortable with 2 billion ringgit, and we are well on the way to achieving those targets.” 

AirAsia has publicly acknowledged that its future capacity will be slimmed down, and that it is continuing to negotiate new sources of funding. Meanwhile, it launched a new aircraft engineering services division, and a so-called ‘SuperApp’.

Its extensive route network drove South East Asia’s rapid expansion in air travel over the past decade. While 2021 looks like being another tough year, AirAsia remains the one to watch as a barometer of potential recovery in passenger demand. 


If you have nothing better to do this Wednesday, 6 January (3pm KL/Singapore), join me, Hannah Pearson, Jason Rolan and Jaeyeon Choe as we discuss the way forward for Wellness Tourism in South East Asia.

— Free webinar log-in HERE


11) Domestic Travel Becomes “The Thing”

Wind back through the 2010s, and travel industry talk focused almost exclusively on inbound arrivals. Annual visitor targets dominated tourism policies. The exception was China, which transformed – largely through sheer size and scale – both its outbound and, equally importantly, domestic travel sectors to impressive effect.  

Elsewhere, domestic travel was under-valued, under-funded and under-strategised. 

Few countries dedicated marketing dollars to encourage domestic tourism, or to create tailored experiences for homegrown tourists. Thailand and Japan launched initiatives in 2019, but in a region where state planning plays a central role in tourism planning, domestic travel was usually left to the airlines and hoteliers to sort out.

Then came the COVID-19 border closures. Everything changed.

Panicked Tourism Ministers began extolling the virtues of travel within borders. Frequently they appealed to national sentiment to “help boost the economy.” 

“Panicked Tourism Ministers began extolling the virtues of travel within borders ‘to help boost the economy’.”

To some degree this shift prospered, although relying on local travel in countries with small populations remains forlorn.  

Across Asia, domestic travellers tend to take their trips on weekends and public holidays. They sometimes self-drive and may stay with families. Their spending priorities are different, especially as they confront shifting economic realities.

Tourism policymakers neglected to fully understand these trends.

But 2020’s enforced focus on homegrown travel has thrown up some anomalies.

Tourism Research Australia, for example, revealed that in 2019 domestic travellers outspent inbound visitors by more than 2:1. Tourism Australia re-entered the domestic market in 2020 after nearly 8 years by inviting Australians to ‘Holiday Here this Year.’

With an uncertain 2021 ahead – and a second consecutive Chinese New Year without Chinese tourists – expect domestic travel policymakers to be more proactive than ever.

12) The Beijing & Danang “Incidents”

Surveying Asia, it’s difficult to compare COVID-19 impacts because of the volatile nature of outbreaks, and vastly different national strategies and circumstances. 

Countries with large, dense populations and high levels of poverty - notably India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia and Philippines – continue to battle mass-scale transmissions. Those are the only Asian countries among the world’s 30 worst affected nations in terms of cumulative infections.

Elsewhere, countries that seemed to have the virus under control are now struggling.

Malaysia and Myanmar are good examples. The borders in both nations have been closed for several months, and they had wrestled control of daily infections until national (Myanmar) and state (Malaysia) elections resulted in super spreading. Thailand remains fearful that its current outbreak may spread faster and wider.

But if we retrace our steps, two shocks to the COVID-19 system in well-contained countries still reverberate across the travel landscape. 

“Two shocks to the COVID-19 system in well-contained countries still reverberate across the travel landscape.”

The first occurred in Beijing in June. The epicentre of the pandemic, China had gone 56 days without registering a local transmission. 

Then an outbreak occurred in the capital, Beijing, on 11 June. The source was traced to the Xinfadi market. Within four days, 76,500 people were tested and contact traced daily. A partial lockdown was imposed, and hundreds of flights cancelled. 

Although China quickly suppressed the outbreak, the COVID-19 reappearance jolted Asia because it highlighted that the return of regional travel would be further delayed.

The impact of an outbreak in Vietnam was equally pronounced, and the response swift and unswerving. After a near-100 day run without a single community transmission, domestic travel was thriving, and life in Vietnamese cities appeared “back to normal.” 

Confirmed infections in the coastal city of Danang in late July stoked fear across the country. Eighty thousand holidaymakers were evacuated, flights from Danang were suspended and social distancing measures re-introduced. 

Hitherto acclaimed for its COVID-19 containment, Vietnam faced an escalating spike of infections. 

It reacted quickly and shutdown the outbreak, but once more travel confidence was shattered across the region.

13) Bali Postpones Its Tourism Reopening 

In mid-June, the Balinese governor announced that the island would reopen its tourism-reliant economy in 3 phases. 

Firstly, local tourism businesses reopened on 9 July. Then, on 31 July, domestic tourists returned to Bali. 

The success, or otherwise, of domestic travel would determine if international tourists could be welcomed back on 11 September.

Fixed deadlines, though, are tricky to manage in a fast-shifting pandemic.

Bali's domestic tourism reopening was unlike others in Asia. Indonesia is a vast archipelago, and – as an island – Bali is only accessible by flight or ferry. Critically, its two primary domestic source markets, Jakarta and Surabaya, were COVID-19 hotspots. 

The importance of domestic travel to Bali is often overlooked. In 2019, Bali Airport handled 6.86 international and 4.97 million domestic passengers.

A spiralling COVID-19 infection rate after the return of domestic visitors forced Bali to postpone its 11 September inbound reopening.

The issue was slightly more complex, however. Foreign tourists are prohibited from entering Indonesia, and international flights are restricted. Therefore, it required the Jakarta government to amend the national entry rules. 

Moreover Bali needed to attract visitors. With most regional borders shut, and long-haul flights from Europe almost non-existent, this required negotiating ‘travel bubble’ agreements. Indonesia’s rising infection rate proved an insurmountable hurdle.

Rumours surfaced once more in December that Bali was preparing to announce its reopening to international travellers. So far, this has not been realised.

14) HKIA Bans KLIA Flights

In late September, Hong Kong International Airport banned flights for 2 weeks from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The reason was that 5 passengers on a flight between the two cities tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival. The passengers were returning from India to Hong Kong, and transited in the Malaysian capital. 

A similar occurrence occurred in late July, when Cambodia temporarily banned flights from Malaysia and Indonesia for the same reason. Other temporary bans have been instituted at Asia airports for positive tests among passengers.

The issue continues to raise questions about transit controls at hub airports – and about testing procedures at the original point of exit.

Across Asia, returning citizens, workers and students continue to test positive upon arrival to their destination. In some cases, they carried the required paperwork stating they had tested negative within the stipulated 72-hour pre-flight period.

The finger of blame is often pointed at fraudulently obtained test certificates and faulty ‘false negative’ procedures. No-one seems to question the widely accepted 72-hour window for securing a negative test result. This 3-day hiatus provides ample time for passengers to come into contact with the virus.

Such instances do little to bolster public confidence in air travel – although, in many countries, this remains prohibited for most of the population. 

As more flights are re-introduced across Asia Pacific, passengers will want greater assurance. Right now, that isn’t proving possible.

It will likely require vaccines to iron out the situation.

15) “Land of COVID” 

COVID-19 diplomacy became stretched in South East Asia in August. Fault lines appeared when a Thai newspaper described the Philippines as "Land of COVID." The story reported on 165 Filipino teachers, who arrived in Thailand to teach at private schools. Unsurprisingly, it proved inflammatory.  

The Philippine Consul General described the article as “inappropriate, insensitive and unhelpful.” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesperson then lashed out:

“We are fierce competitors with Thailand when it comes to tourism. So I’m sure their statement that we are the 'Land of COVID' is motivated by the fact that they are struggling to invite people to come visit Thailand. They're worse off as they have a bigger tourism industry than us.”

Having taken on Thailand, the same spokesperson turned to Indonesia.

The spark this time was the Philippines overtaking Indonesia as having the largest cumulative total of COVD-19 infections in South East Asia. “Because we test more, it’s not true that we have more cases than Indonesia,” he said. “The Indonesians just don’t know just exactly how many who are sick are out there. At least we do.” 

On the face of it, these skirmishes seem relatively low-powered. But both countries were, and remain, under pressure as travellers in future will likely take the handling of the pandemic into account when choosing a destination.

Indonesia is heading towards 800,000 cumulative cases, and the Philippines has surpassed 475,000. Indonesia alone accounts for 62% of active cases in South East Asia.

16)  Maldives Makes Gentle Waves

Pockets of optimism were hard to find in 2020, but Maldives was a bright spot.

The Indian Ocean archipelago gradually reopened to inbound visitors from 15 July. By 15 October, guest houses as well as resorts were permitted to welcome guests subject to stringent health protocols.

In 2019, Maldives welcomed 1.7 million inbound arrivals, and targeted 2 million in 2020. It received 382,760 visitors from January to March before closing its borders.

Upon reopening, it launched a string of marketing activations in India to draw more visitors from a vital inbound market. These included wedding and honeymoon promotions. India and Maldives also began a Air Bubble agreement on 25 August.

Maldives also launched what it claims is the world’s first destination loyalty scheme. Maldives Border Miles is a 3-tier programme enabling visitors to earn reward points for each stay on the islands. The scheme commenced on 1 January 2021.

On 28 December 2020, Maldives recorded its highest daily arrivals total, 6,037, since reopening its borders. Overall, the country greeted over 140,000 visitors from 15 July to 30 December, and 550,000 in the 2020 calendar year. The top 5 inbound markets were Russia, Italy, India, UK and China.

17) Thailand’s “Special Tourist Visa”

It’s difficult to know where to start – or finish. This long-running saga may have more miles to run. 

Thailand welcomed a record 39.8 million visitors in 2019, and its national economy is heavily supported by tourism income. 

Despite being one of the first countries outside of China to record a COVID-19 case, Thailand successfully contained the pandemic for most of 2020.

A couple of “pain moments” occurred. Egyptian marines visiting a mall in Rayong province, with one subsequently testing positive, sparked a rush of domestic travel cancellations. A similar outcome occurred after a Bangkok DJ contracted the virus in September. The nation is now striving to suppress a new wave of infections believed to have started in the province of Samut Sakhon.

In September, Thai tourism authorities decided to restore charter flight travel to Phuket. The island – or at least, selected resorts - would become a Bio Bubble. 

Long-stay charter travellers (on Thai Airways flights) would be quarantined for 14 days, tested and confined in a defined area. They would be expected to stay for 90 days. It was suggested that limited travel beyond the island may be permitted, if a further 7-day isolation period was completed.

Then, the Phuket Plan transformed into the Special Tourist Visa. Almost overnight.

Quarantine and testing procedures were equally stringent (and visitors also needed to isolate at home before travelling). Visitors from “low-risk countries” only were allowed entry (although this was extended to all countries in December). A minimum 90-day stay is required, with two 90-day extensions permitted. A complex application process requires full payment of post-quarantine accommodation, and proof of a minimum USS100,000 travel insurance coverage.

Instead of Phuket, flights arrive in Bangkok.

The scheme was launched with the high-profile arrival of a planeload of travellers from China on 20 October.

From there, the project became increasingly opaque. 

Now, with stricter anti-pandemic curbs introduced in 28 Red Zone provinces (including Bangkok), the prospects for the Special Tourist Visa seem even cloudier. 

18)  Indian Travel Rebound On Hold

Less heralded than China’s outbound market, India is a vital – and fast growing –source of visitors for countries across South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau. Or it was until the pandemic upended travel.

India’s struggles with COVID-19 inevitably damaged its travel sector.

On 3 September, India recorded 83,883 COVID-19 infections. That was a new daily record, and confirmed that the world’s second most populace nation counted its fastest growing infection rate. On 17 September, India’s new daily cases peaked at 97,894. 

The rate has since tapered, with 37,256 new infections recorded on 2 January 2021.

India counts the second highest number of infections (10.3 million) worldwide after the US, and nearly 150,000 deaths.

Domestic aviation is recovering, but international passenger flights remain prohibited until at least 31 January. 

Globally, only China and the US ended 2020 with larger scheduled air capacity than India. And there is considerable room for regrowth, with weekly flights seats during late December down 32.6% compared to the (pre-pandemic) week of 20 January, according to OAG.

With Indian GDP forecast to grow at a sizzling pace in 2021, all eyes will be on consumer – and travel – spending.

For now, India’s dynamic travel growth has stalled – but the ability of outbound demand to bounce back is highly anticipated across Asia Pacific. 

19) Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble Bursts

Announced in a blaze of publicity on 15 October, the bilateral Air Travel Bubble between two of Asia’s primary air hubs was scheduled to commence on 22 November.

Finally, it seemed as if a workable, quarantine-free 2-way travel bubble might be feasible. Would it kickstart a new era of bubble-centric travel in Asia Pacific?

The joint launch statement by Hong Kong and Singapore was packed with terms – ‘stringent measures’, ‘designated flights’, ‘scalable mechanism’, ‘epidemic situation’ - that would have been anachronistic during the carefree, book-as-late-as-you-want era that unfolded across the 2010s.

Daily quotas (one flight per day from/to each city) and the absence of competition on each route were viewed as inevitable first-phase outcomes for re-establishing general travel.

But, free of a mandated quarantine, travellers were promised that there would be no restrictions on their itineraries while in either Singapore or Hong Kong.

Edward Yau, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, described the initiative as being:

“As close as it gets to cross-border travel pre-COVID-19, and it is only possible because Singapore and Hong Kong have both successfully controlled the spread of COVI1-19. This is not to be taken lightly.”

The realities of travelling through an Air Travel Bubble were sadly never tested.

A surge of case infections in Hong Kong resulted in a postponement until 2021. No new date has yet been announced.

20) A New Winter Wave

And here we are. New Year came and went without any tangible progress for travel and tourism in Asia Pacific.

Meanwhile, stricter border measures were temporarily implemented in several countries, including Japan and Indonesia – which had both previously appeared willing to step up the liberalisation of pandemic-era entry requirements.

The culprit for the new and prolonged shutdowns is, of course, COVID-19 – and fears that a more transmissible variant is spreading worldwide. 

Several months ago, scientists raised the likelihood of a potentially more damaging “second wave” of infections during the Northern Hemisphere winter. 

As it transpired, the volatile nature of the novel coronavirus resulted in several COVID crests throughout 2020.

However, suppression strategies in many countries, notably China, evolved to identify new clusters at source, then rigorously test, trace and isolate until the outbreak is suffocated.

This prevents a ‘cluster’ from spreading from its epicentre to become a ‘wave’. 

That said, even rigorous COVID-19 control strategies are subject to the vagaries of the virus. Hong Kong, for example, continues to report cases for which the origin is officially unknown or untraceable.

If we didn’t know it before, it really is Vaccine or Bust for travel and tourism.


And, that’s a wrap for Issue 22.

Asia Travel Re:Set will return on 10 January. Until then, you can catch me on Twitter and LinkedIn, and at Check-in Asia

This week also sees The South East Asia Travel Show awaken from its Christmas/New Year slumber with a two-part look ahead to travel in 2021.

Feel free to send thoughts and feedback (positive, negative or middling) to gary@check-in.asia 

Have a great week,

Gary