Their flights were more expensive and took longer, their favorite restaurant was shuttered, and they had to take coronavirus tests on the first and fifth days of their trip. But the biggest hassle for Brian Lamberty and Paola Laird, retirees from London, in their long-awaited return to Phuket Island in Thailand was the paperwork.
Before their February trip, Laird spent nearly three hours uploading all the documents — vaccination records, hotel reservations, and proof of health insurance among them — needed for the Thailand Pass, an entry requirement instituted for international travelers during the pandemic. “For many people who are not computer literate, it’s going to be a problem,” Laird said.
After a long and painful hiatus, and despite rising cases of coronavirus in some Southeast Asian countries and lingering U.S. government warnings against travel to most of them, international tourism is now gradually returning to Southeast Asia. Lamberty and Laird are among the early waves of visitors since the pandemic restrictions turned the region’s tourism playgrounds into ghost towns in early 2020. More countries in recent weeks announced that they are ready to admit fully vaccinated foreign tourists, or soon will be, though still within limits.
The rollout of vaccines in Southeast Asia and rollback of coronavirus restrictions around the world are prompting the reopening. Now, the war in Ukraine is complicating the travel picture everywhere, as the general unease could make people think twice about booking a big trip — or potentially opt for Southeast Asia, 4,500 miles from Ukraine, instead of Europe.
In November, Thailand and Cambodia were among the first countries in Southeast Asia to fully reopen to tourists. After an omicron surge, Thailand in December suspended most tourist arrivals, but on Feb. 1 resumed its nationwide “Test & Go” program, which requires hotel isolation and a PCR test the first day and a rapid test the fifth day. Days later, Bali fully reopened to foreigners, though with a quarantine of three to seven days (then dropped the quarantine requirement this month). The Philippines followed Feb. 10, with no quarantine but with social distancing in some locations. Vietnam announced that it would open its borders Tuesday to international tourists, with a one-day hotel isolation. And Malaysia recently announced it was reopening April 1 without a quarantine.
As the once tourist-dependent region reopens its borders, travelers should expect more paperwork, higher airfares, cheaper hotels (for the short term) and fewer crowds — especially since China, the biggest single source of tourists in the region, has no plans to reopen its borders anytime soon.
Travel operators are grappling with a shortage of labor, lingering uncertainty over the virus and now the war in Ukraine, and impatience — they worry that those deeply missed tourists will go elsewhere in the region unless their own country is the first to fully reopen.
“I think for the next 12 months it’s going to be pretty complicated to travel in Asia,” said Adam Platt-Hepworth, whose Grasshopper Adventures cycling tour company worked with 30,000 travelers in 2019 and fewer than 50 in 2020. “The biggest challenge overall is just going to be restarting after so long, not just with our people but with hotels and restaurants and anyone in travel. It’s been a long time. People are rusty.”
Complications Abound for Travelers
Before the pandemic, Southeast Asia was one of the fastest-growing regions in the world for international tourism, with a record 139 million visitors in 2019, a jump of about 8% compared with 2018, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The emerald waters of Halong Bay in Vietnam were crowded with hundreds of cruise boats, rooftop bars in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, teemed with partyers, and walking on streets on Thai islands like Phuket meant enduring shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Tourist attractions across the region were congested with package tours from China, the world’s biggest source of outbound tourism for the past decade. According to the UNWTO, about 150 million Chinese travelers spent $277 billion in 2018 alone.
Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Cambodia were among favorite destinations of Chinese tourists. But as the coronavirus outbreak in China morphed into a global pandemic in early 2020, locations in the region that depended on foreign visitors were deserted. Last year, foreign arrivals to Southeast Asia plummeted to 3.3 million, around 2% of the record number in 2019.
This year, with the incremental revival of international tourism, visitors will encounter a raft of constraints as well as rewards, according to tourists and travel companies in the region.
Lamberty and Laird vacationed in Phuket 16 times before the pandemic. They were usually out and about on the island — fabled for its tropical beaches, fiery cuisine, hedonistic nightlife — and enjoyed visiting temples and taking Thai cooking classes. This time, they took it easy, visiting friends and relaxing at their go-to beachfront hotel, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, on the Andaman Sea. They were sad to see that boutiques had closed in a nearby shopping center, now a COVID testing site.
“You have a memory of what’s happened before and what was here, but everybody has to compromise,” Laird said. “Be brave about travel and go for it; the prize is just being here.”
Travelers going after that prize should be prepared to endure virus tests and even quarantines, and purchase health and travel insurance before their arrival. Other suggestions: Be ready to download government travel apps, upload vaccination and travel documents, and acknowledge that a positive virus test result could send you into a quarantine or cause a missed flight. Don’t be surprised if service at hotels, restaurants and tour companies is spotty or if they are short staffed — or if the government rules change suddenly while you are on holiday.
Higher flight costs are another unwanted change. Airfares from the United States to Southeast Asia last month were about 30% higher than before the pandemic, because fewer planes were flying to the region, averaging $1,150 round trip, according to an analysis for The New York Times by Hopper, a flight and hotel booking company.
“Generally, as airlines add capacity to these countries, airfares should drop,” said Adit Damodaran, an economist at Hopper.
Lush Countryside and Local Dishes Still Beckon
Ad and Patricia Ketelaars, semiretired Dutch entrepreneurs who moved to Singapore seven years ago, last month decided to take their first adventure trip in the region in two years. They wanted to cycle in Thailand on a self-guided tour, but it was “too complicated,” Ad Ketelaars said.
They opted for Cambodia and booked a guided tour with Grasshopper Adventures, setting out on Feb. 28 from Phnom Penh and ending eight days later in Siem Reap.
They were most looking forward to returning to the lush countryside, said Ad Ketelaars just before the trip and in between taking a coronavirus test in Singapore and researching the best hospitals in Cambodia.
“The anxiety of these types of things is, what if you test positive?” he said. “You want to make sure you wind up in a place that can deal with it.” — NYT