Ukraine crisis clouds Southeast Asia’s fragile tourism recovery

 Friday, March 4, 2022 


Travel industry figures fear the war in Ukraine could derail the much-anticipated recovery of tourism-dependent economies in Southeast Asia just as COVID-19 travel restrictions are finally being lifted across the region.

The Philippines, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand are now open to vaccinated travellers, albeit with costly and cumbersome protocols. Indonesia recently announced it would restart quarantine-free travel in Bali by March 14, while Vietnam plans to reopen to tourists on March 15.

The most recent World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Panel of Experts’ survey found nearly two-thirds of travel professionals expected their fortunes would improve this year on the back of easing border restrictions and positive data from 2021.

Global tourism receipts for 2021 reached $1.9 trillion, up 19 percent compared with the previous year, according to the UNWTO.

Overall global passenger traffic improved eight percentage points, with demand down 58 percent compared with 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association – although the Asia Pacific’s recovery lagged other regions.

But the war in Ukraine, sanctions against Russia and airspace restrictions have dampened projections in a region where Russians became the largest and most spendthrift group of visitors for many top destinations during the pandemic, displacing Chinese unable to travel due to their country’s strict border controls.

The fallout is already being felt in popular destinations such as the Thai resort island of Phuket, where Russians account for 51,000 of the 278,000 foreigners who visited the island between November and February, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Gary Bowerman, a travel analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said Russian visitors have been a priority market for destinations including Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s Bali since the decline in Chinese tourists.

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