Restarting tourism, recharging life

Restarting tourism, recharging life

November 1 was the official start of Thailand's open-border policy to once again welcome tourists on a large scale. The success of domestic vaccinations against the coronavirus was one factor that helped make the reopening possible, with about 69% of the population now having received at least two doses.

The reopening to vaccinated travellers from 63 countries and territories without the need for quarantine was preceded by the Phuket Sandbox programme that started on July 1, allowing for travel in designated areas before visitors could travel freely elsewhere in the country.

Unfortunately, concerns about the Omicron coronavirus variant have led to the temporary suspension of quarantine-free entry, with the exception of the Phuket Sandbox. The rules will be reviewed this week and all parties concerned hope this is only a short-term setback.

Prior to the return of quarantine measures, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) had been forecasting anywhere between 8 million and 15 million international arrivals this year. No one expects to see a return to the pre-pandemic figure of 40 million for several years to come, if ever. That is why the TAT is looking to increase the ratio of domestic tourism spending to 50% of the total, from around 30% now.

The revival is off to an encouraging start but the journey has a long way to go. According to a Bank of Thailand (BoT) white paper, tourism and hospitality and related sectors involve about 7 million people or 20% of the country's workforce, directly and indirectly. As many as 3 million of these jobs have been lost since the pandemic started in March 2020, another recent report said. Gradual recovery of the industry means the potential return of income streams for millions of people.

The BoT report also foresees an evolution in demand post-pandemic, with more niche travel and a high emphasis on safety. Digitisation will help enable the latter, contributing to seamless journeys, online queuing systems and contactless payment, to name a few.

As one of the key players in this ecosystem, Traveloka aims to provide a platform for both pre- and post-trip activity, making travelling easy and safe. In addition to the usual services such as booking and payment, we now provide users with information regarding Covid. They can search for the nearest test centre, manage related things like transport or change itineraries as conditions warrant.

Insights on traffic movement and service demand on the Traveloka platform show that travel activity has been picking up since September 2021 when interprovincial travel rules were eased, and the vaccination drive started to gain considerable momentum.

We've also seen positive growth from our partners, especially those registered with the Thai government's Safety & Health Administration (SHA) programme. Since we first started to feature Traveloka Clean Partners with SHA+ accreditation in June, participating businesses have experienced higher traffic and sales compared to others not registered with the programme. Bookings under Clean Flight increased by 85%, Clean Accommodation 65% and Clean Xperience a phenomenal 165%.

The travel industry is one of the world's most resilient, having survived many catastrophic events in the past. Over the short term, domestic travel will support the recovery in Thailand. The data shows that people miss travelling. Over the longer term, Traveloka is optimistic about international travel. Southeast Asia is home to one of the world's fastest-growing travel markets driven by a large middle class (300 million) with international aspirations.

We see a rapid rise in flight and accommodation transactions every time that restrictions are eased across Southeast Asia. People have started to travel again, but their behaviours may have changed in this "new normal" era.

The pandemic has made it more obvious that travel and lifestyle choices go together. As Southeast Asia's travel and lifestyle superapp, Traveloka has refocused to broaden its services. This includes collaborations with government bodies in Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam to support vaccination drives and revive domestic tourism, as well as working with a non-profit organisation in Thailand to distribute daily necessities to homeless people and small-business employees who lost their homes due to impact of the pandemic on the travel sector.

We are also responding to digitisation trends by developing new ways to serve the changing needs of consumers, offering a seamless experience. Our new and expanded offerings include:

We started by filling an immediate gap in the market to provide critical and reliable information about Covid testing, as well as the ability to book tests at more than 850 trusted test centres across 130 cities in four markets -- Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines -- all through our app. To date, more than 600,000 people have booked tests through our platform.

We put a spotlight on partners who have committed to adhere to and implement strict health and safety protocols, so that customers can conveniently get the needed information to ensure their health and safety. We now have nearly 10,000 partners in this programme.

Our consumer research and internal data showed flexibility was one of the top considerations for our users during the pandemic. At the same time, cash flow was the main concern of our hotel partners -- many of which are SMEs -- who needed to stay afloat. The new "Buy Now, Stay Later" service allows customers to book stays at hotels with an open date for check-in, offering great discounts and flexibility, while securing cash flow for our hotel partners the moment a booking is made.

A new instalment payment method using virtual numbers for PayLater users has made its debut in Indonesia, allowing them to use their PayLater credit on major e-commerce sites. A first in Southeast Asia, this product was launched in partnership with PT Bank Negara Indonesia Tbk to provide a safer transaction experience.

The return of travel is not only starting to recharge travellers, but also people in the industry. It brings back livelihoods, and we are here to help contribute to the health of this vital ecosystem.

Panicha Thananaken is the country manager of Traveloka Thailand.

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