Issue #43 - Bali & The Complexities of Tourism Reopening in South East Asia
“Tourism restarts, where they do occur in the near term, are likely to be incremental, island-based and focused specifically on inbound arrivals."
Hello. Welcome to Asia Travel Re:Set…
Next Friday marks 9 months since Bali planned to reopen to international tourists. For many reasons, the 11 September 2020 target date was implausible - but with domestic visitors having returned to the island, Bali’s authorities were emboldened.
It was, of course, postponed.
“It’s a welcome sign that foreigners are confident in our safety measures… I instructed officials to take good care of the tourists, because if they’re safe, Thais are safe too.”
In a couple of weeks, it will be 8 months since Anutin Charnvirakul, Thailand’s Health Minister, uttered this phrase at the kickstart of the Special Tourist Visa.
We all remember those October images of disoriented Chinese arrivals outside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport suiting up in PPE as the media snapped every move.
And here we are again.
This week, Asia Pacific was galvanised by the “Will They, Won’t They?” travel reboots of Phuket and Bali - this time for vaccinated tourists - in July.
After months of trying, Thailand seems to have found a model it believes is workable. Caveats and small print need ironing out, but the Phuket Sandbox - a pilot project prefacing a broader opening later in 2021 - may be approved next week.
Bali looks less certain, primarily because of a much larger population to inoculate before the planes land. A further delay is possible to administer the necessary jabs.
Thanks for being on board,
The Sunday Itinerary
From 126.745 million down to -1.8 in Asia Pacific this week
Singapore’s Prime Minister envisions a future of living with “endemic COVID-19”
- Bali & The Complexities of Tourism Reopening in South East Asia
What is a “tourism reopening” and who will come?
From 126.745 million down to -1.8 in Asia Pacific this week…
126.745 million: Total arrivals into Asia Pacific during 2020. [PATA]
94%: Drop in arrivals to Asia Pacific in Q1 2021 compared to Q1 2020. [UNWTO]
14: The Trans-Tasman travel bubble pause between New Zealand and Victoria was extended to 14 days with flights due to resume on 9 June. [TVNZ]
9: United plans to fly supersonic aircraft from Los Angeles to Sydney from 2029 with a flight time of less than 9 hours. [Bloomberg]
-1.8%: China’s scheduled airline capacity hovers just below parity this week compared to the pre-pandemic week of 20 January 2020. [OAG]
You heard it here…
“One day this global pandemic will subside but I do not expect COVID-19 to disappear. It will remain with humankind, and become endemic. The virus will continue to circulate in pockets of the global population for years to come.”
“Living with endemic COVID-19 means we do not completely close our borders. We must stay connected to the world, with effective safeguards and border restrictions to keep ourselves safe. We will not be able to prevent some infected persons from slipping through from time to time.”
“In the new normal, COVID-19 will not dominate our lives. Our people will be mostly vaccinated, and possibly taking booster shots every year… Visitors will again come to Singapore. Singaporeans will travel again to countries where the disease is well under control...”
Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, this week set out a vision for the future of living with “endemic COVID-19.” Read the speech in full HERE
Bali & The Complexities of Tourism Reopening in South East Asia
Over the past decade, Bali became emblematic of the growth of tourism into and around Asia Pacific. Its stunning island landscapes and beach towns catered to the entire tourism spectrum, from backpackers to weekend breakers and conference guests to luxury resort mavens.
International visitors almost doubled from 2014 to 2019. Fuelled by demand from flag carriers and LCCs, Bali’s international airport completed a shape-shifting expansion.
Yet, on a regional scale, Bali represents a fairly small market. It welcomed 6.275 million international visitors in 2019 - around 39% of Indonesia’s inbound arrivals.
Like most of Asia Pacific, tourism in Bali fell silent in March 2020.
1) Why Are Bali & Phuket Such Big News?
Fifteen months after shutting down, Bali and Phuket are centre stage news in South East Asian tourism. Reopening to inbound tourism is vital to help rebuild devastated local economies, and to inject much-needed confidence in travel.
Governments and travel industry players are desperately seeking a ‘turning point,’ a ‘catalyst’ - something to kickstart vaccine-era tourism in the region. Every nation is watching each other.
Should both projects launch and prove successful, they may encourage other island-based tourism restarts - both in Indonesia and Thailand, and beyond.
But with COVID-19 still spreading across much of the region - including Indonesia and Thailand - local vaccination programmes are central to each tourism reboot.
2) What Does “Reopening” Mean?
There is no simple answer right now. Certainly, with inoculation rates starting to climb off a low base, countries in South East Asia are not ready to throw open their airport gates and border posts.
Tourism restarts, where they do occur in the near term, are likely to be incremental, island-based and focused specifically on inbound arrivals.
It’s no surprise that Bali and Phuket are islands. Reopening in decentralised locations (away from the majority of the population) is currently viewed as the plausible option. This will likely remain a regional stance while vaccine programmes rely on irregular supply speeds. ‘Herd immunity’ resides in the distance for much of Asia Pacific.
“Tourism restarts, where they do occur in the near term, are likely to be incremental, island-based and focused specifically in inbound arrivals.”
Phuket’s likely-to-be-approved reopening requires a 14-day minimum stay on the island, which may be interpreted as quarantine by another name.
The terms of Australia and New Zealand’s bilateral travel bubble (although NZ also has a bubble with the Cook Islands) currently inhibit either country from starting unilateral reopening discussions with other countries.
Maldives, Seychelles and Sri Lanka are island destinations whose tourism models are unencumbered by the porous land borders that challenge governments in mainland South East Asia, for example.
Bali’s reopening format is yet to be fully defined, but the working model is vaccinated travellers from “low to medium risk” countries approved through a process of negotiation.
Three ‘Green Zone’ destinations have been identified (See #7 below): Nusa Dua, Ubud and Sanur. In addition, the neighbouring island of Lombok, plus three islands off its northwest coast, could be adjunct reopening destinations.
3) Will Bali Reopen in July?
It’s by no means certain.
“The local administration is very upbeat. They really want to get Bali to reopen. But, there are two parts to the equation. Firstly, will Bali open? And, secondly, who’s going to come?”
Stuart McDonald, Founder of Travelfish, speaking on The South East Asia Travel Show
Over the last couple of months, caveats have imbued the language used by Indonesia’s Tourism Minister, the Minister of Economic Affairs and the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, plus Bali's Governor and Deputy Governor.
These tend to be along the lines that reopening will be based on “the conditions of other countries” and “Indonesia's national caseload.”
The health ministry recently announced that Indonesia's post-Eid COVID-19 infection surge should peak in mid-June.
Moreover, the most recent statement from Bali's Governor regarding the province's declining case rate makes a fairly clear case for not reopening Bali in a hurry.
4) The Vaccination Factor
In Bali and Phuket, the island populations are prioritised for COVID-19 vaccination through accelerated local programmes set apart from the national rollout.
Indonesia’s avowed goal is to vaccinate 70% of Bali’s 4.32 million population before reopening to inbound travel. Although strong progress has been made, it remains some way short of that objective.
“A total of 1,404,604 Bali residents had received a first vaccine jab by 5 June, or 25.81% of the population.”
According to official data, 1,404,604 Bali residents had received a vaccine jab by 5 June, or 25.81% of the population. Some 659,642 people had received two vaccine doses.
Another crucial, yet often overlooked issue, is vaccine eligibility. How, for example, is a “tourism fronting business” defined? Tourists encounter a multitude of vendors and service providers daily in any destination.
Moreover, foreign visitors currently staying in Bali before the official reopening occurs are unlikely to be vaccinated.
As Stuart McDonald of Travelfish points on this week’s podcast (see below):
“Many foreigners who are currently in Bali on an assortment of social and business visas are not eligible for a vaccination - but these people are overrepresented in the designated areas that Bali wants to open to tourism.”
5) Who Will Come?
Bali welcomed 6.275 million inbound visitors in 2019, up from 4.0 million in 2015. But, just as for the failed reboot of September 2020, its two primary tourism markets, China and Australia, are currently inactive. India is unlikely to be considered. Strong Asian markets like Japan, Malaysia and Singapore seem long shots at the moment.
Affluent South Koreans are travelling (to Vietnam and Europe, for instance), and seem prepared to undergo home quarantine upon return, but whether Bali would be on their 2021 Bucket List is unknown at present.
Five long-haul destinations featured in Bali’s 2019 Top 10 inbound markets. Bringing travellers back from those destinations would rely on reviving scheduled, or more likely, charter flight demand in the near term.
Indonesia’s tourism ministry has said it is “in talks” with 7 countries: Belgium, France, Russia, Singapore, UK, Netherlands and Vietnam. Nothing has been announced. Last week, the UK published its revised Green List of safe countries for UK travellers, and Bali was not included. Qatar has also been discussed.
On 6 June, news emerged that China, Singapore, Netherlands, Qatar and the UAE are to be included in a Travel Bubble scheme permitting vaccinated travellers to visit Bali.
Top 10 Inbound Markets to Bali, 2019
Source: Bali Office of Statistics
6) What About the Domestic Market?
Bali’s largest inbound market isn’t ‘inbound’ at all. The island received 10.55 million Indonesian visitors in 2019 - up from 7.15 million in 2015. These primarily arrive from the Tier-1 Indonesian cities, such as Jakarta and Surabaya.
Inbound travellers have been permitted to visit Bali since 31 July last year. Some restrictions have been in place, notably during the recent Eid public holiday.
If Indonesian travellers are to be permitted to enter Bali after vaccinated international travellers begin arriving - would they also need to be vaccinated? At present, a negative COVID-19 test is the only requirement for domestic tourists to Bali.
7) Where Will Travellers Be Able to Visit?
Pre-pandemic, tourism to Bali was fairly fluid - particularly in the south and east of the island. Visitors based in one location spent plenty of time touring other areas.
Initially, 3 destinations in Bali - Sanur, Ubud and Nusa Dua - have been selected as designated Green Zones for vaccinated tourists to visit. Each one has been prioritised for the vaccination of local residents.
They are quite well dispersed geographically, and Nusa Dua in particular has traditionally catered to high-end resort travellers.
Ubud boasts a more eclectic appeal, and drew plenty of day trippers - but many of its hotels, restaurants and tour businesses remain closed.
The beach town of Sanur is less chaotic than Kuta or Seminyak. It also provides ferry access to the neighbouring island of Lombok, and the popular backpacker trio of Gili islands - all of which may be incorporated into the Bali reopening plan.
Interestingly, Badung Regency - home to the coastal resort towns of Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu - has publicly stated its affront at being left off the Green Zone list.
It has similarly pushed hard on vaccinations, setting its own target of 80% - higher than the provincial government's 70% stipulation - for the three Green Zones.
With grateful thanks to Stuart McDonald, Bali-based Founder, Travelfish, and Julia Winterflood, Head Writer, The Bali Beat, for their invaluable insights provided.
On this week’s The South East Asia Travel Show, we welcomed back Bali-based Stuart McDonald, Founder of Travelfish, to talk all things travel and tourism in Bali and beyond. Stuart discusses how COVID-19 has impacted travel businesses and daily life around Bali, the outlook for domestic tourism and the current economic situation in Bali and Indonesia. Plus, we assess recent media articles about the behaviour of foreign visitors in Bali’s beach towns, and the much written about ‘Digital Nomads.’
And, that’s a wrap for Issue 43.
Until next Sunday, you can find me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and the Asia Travel Re:Set website.
Have a great week,