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Reimagining tourism in Asia

Bart W. Édes
Revival of tourism in Southeast Asia will be built on new trends such as health and hygiene, innovation and digitisation, sustainability and a focus on domestic tourism
Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Hạ Long Bay in Vietnam

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has assessed that the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity to rethink tourism for the future, noting that measures adopted today will shape the tourism of tomorrow.

Governments should thus consider the longer-term implications of the crisis, while capitalising on digitalisation, supporting the low carbon transition, and promoting the structural transformation needed to build a stronger, more sustainable and resilient tourism economy.

The pandemic has highlighted a pressing need to diversify and strengthen the resilience of the tourism economy, prepare for future shocks, address long standing structural weaknesses, and encourage a digital, low-carbon transformation toward stronger, fairer and more sustainable models of tourism development. Many who work within or study the industry are also calling for a major reset to avoid problems like the negative impacts on the environment and local cultures caused by excessive and unplanned tourism. A reset, they say, should ensure that the industry that emerges on the other side of the pandemic offers greater benefit to local workers, economies and communities.

New trends for a ‘new reality’

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has identified four intertwined trends for the industry’s recovery: demand evolution, health and hygiene, innovation and digitisation, and sustainability. In terms of demand, the preferences and behaviours of travellers have shifted toward the familiar, predictable and trusted. The WTTC foresees more domestic holidays, extensive planning and visits to the outdoors in the short term.

Given the uncertainties around vaccine distribution and effectiveness, and additional threats posed by emerging strains, it may take until the latter half of the decade for all countries in Asia-Pacific to benefit from a full recovery in international tourism.

Health, safety and trust are the most important considerations in the current context. Concern about being trapped in another country by changing visa rules and flight availability, and social distancing, will figure prominently in consumer decisions in the short to medium term. Businesses involved in travel and tourism will have to collaborate closely with their extended value chains to ensure readiness in a time of uncertainty and evolving conditions.

Digital transformation has accelerated in Asia-Pacific during the pandemic, and will continue to reshape the way that people travel and spend their leisure time. Internet penetration rates have risen along with e-commerce and the use of apps. Consumers expect contactless business transactions as part of a safe and seamless travel experience. COVID-19 has spurred the use of GTRIIP, a digital platform relying on deep learning neural networks to verify the identity of a hotel guest. The photo ID of the guest is matched against their smartphone selfie for authentication in a contactless registration process. 

The pandemic has stimulated thought and reflection around the quality of life and human interaction with the natural habitat. There has been a surge in action to address social, environmental and institutional dysfunctions. For example, there is now greater awareness of wildlife markets and poaching, leading to more advocacy for protection of threatened species.

Turning crisis to opportunity

The Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) notes that some countries have used the crisis as an opportunity to build back better and more sustainably. For example, after experiencing nearly $25 billion in tourism-related losses in 2020, Malaysia has forged a new 10-year plan to revive business in the sector. The plan stresses improved competitiveness, sustainable and inclusive tourism, and disaster preparedness (in addition to the risk of future global pandemics, Malaysia frequently contends with floods, landslides and trans-national air pollution).

In addition, the plan seeks to cement the country’s reputation as an ecotourism destination by balancing development and conservation of its rich national environment, wildlife and heritage. Some countries are looking to further develop their offerings for wellness retreats and medical procedures.

In the case of South Korea, Wangoo Lee, a tourism expert from Seoul, sees opportunities in developing tourism in less visited parts of the country. He observes that tourists are seeking less crowded destinations, like mountains, rivers, camping sites, beaches and natural parks. Hiking, he notes, has become more popular in South Korea.

While exiting the pandemic, countries will give continued attention to domestic travel and tourism. They are discovering greater tourism potential among their own populations. For example, the government and tourism companies in Vietnam are actively cultivating domestic tourism, and numerous hotel investments are being made with this clientele specifically in mind.

The pandemic has highlighted a pressing need to diversify and strengthen the resilience of the tourism economy, prepare for future shocks, address long standing structural weaknesses, and encourage a digital, low-carbon transformation toward stronger, fairer and more sustainable models of tourism development.

As more ASEAN members gain control over COVID-19, there will be a resurgence in air travel within Southeast Asia. A return to high economic growth rates, burgeoning middle classes, and visa-free travel among ASEAN members will play a large role in the industry’s recovery, as will the eventual return of large foreign tourist inflows from China, Japan and South Korea.

Given the uncertainties around vaccine distribution and effectiveness, and additional threats posed by emerging strains, it may take until the latter half of the decade for all countries in Asia-Pacific to benefit from a full recovery in international tourism.

When it comes, the industry will not be the same as the one operating a year ago. What emerges could be better than before if governments, businesses and consumers make use of digital technologies, and adopt habits and principles that support safe and environmentally friendly conditions, a well-trained local labour force with decent working conditions and a sustainable growth path.

The first part of this article looks at the impacts of COVID-19 on tourism in Asia and how the region can rebound from the crisis.

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Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Bart is an experienced international trade and development policy specialist analysing transformative trends reshaping Asia and the world. He is a former senior staff member of the Asian Development Bank and principal administrator at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Bart is author of the new book, Learning from Tomorrow: Using Strategic Forecast to Prepare for the Next Big Disruption.

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