Safety tops the tourism agenda
For the past two months or so, many of the world's popular tourist destinations have been shuttered to visitors, leaving beaches, restaurants, shops, bars and streets almost empty.
Now that the world is gradually reopening and people are stepping out again, they are faced with the reality that life today is a lot different from what it was before Covid-19, and will likely remain this way for some time.
One of the most significant differences for most of us, however, is that there are currently no tourists to attend to or crowds to shuffle through.
Given that tourism is the lifeblood of several economies in Asia, Bali in Indonesia, Halong Bay in Vietnam and other destinations are eagerly awaiting visitors. The perceived success of many Asian countries in containing Covid-19 has been widely reported in the West, especially in hard-hit countries such as the US, the UK, Italy, Spain and France.
And as lockdowns ease in Europe and North America, those who are keen to travel internationally are likely to have different priorities than in the past, seeking out destinations seen as safe to visit.
Vietnam, for example, reported only 324 infections and no deaths. Now it wants to breathe life back into its tourism industry after recording a 98% year-on-year fall in arrivals last month. The reopening of most schools on May 5 and the resumption of domestic air travel clearly show that life is returning to close to normal in the country of nearly 100 million, thanks to its swift early response to Covid-19.
Bali was feared to become fertile ground for the coronavirus as millions of foreign tourists flock to its beaches. But Indonesian authorities are now touting it as a public health role model, even as efforts at the national level have been widely criticised, with officials warning the current infection total of 20,000 could swell to 100,000 before starting to ease.
The triumph of Bali was not limited to suppressing new cases or limiting loss of life. Its hospital discharge rate is more than 66%, compared with the national average of 22%, and the ability of three labs on the island to test almost 500 specimens a day helped speed up contact tracing and isolation.
As of May 15, Bali had reported just 343 coronavirus cases and four deaths, for a fatality rate of 1.2%, far below the national average of 6.4%. Its relative success in containing the virus may give it a head-start in luring visitors back when international travel resumes.
Bali welcomed a record 6.2 million foreign visitors last year, but arrivals in the first quarter this year were down 22% year-on-year to 1.04 million. If the infection curve continues to improve, the tourism ministry is hoping to start promoting Bali and some other parts of the country between June and October.
Thailand, meanwhile, has been winning praise for following World Health Organization advice on wearing face masks in public and using hand sanitiser to stay safe. According to a region-wide survey by YouGov and Imperial College London, Thais scored the highest for mask-wearing among six Asean countries, with a 95% compliance rate.
Interestingly, citizens of rule-happy Singapore were the least likely to don masks even though the government gave them away free to everyone.
Thailand opened its malls and department stores on May 17 for the first time since March, the second phase of eased measures as the number of new virus cases daily has slowed to single digits for almost four weeks. Airlines have resumed domestic flights and while travel restrictions remain tight, hotels are reopening in some popular destinations including Hua Hin.
Another Asian country with potential to benefit from keeping Covid-19 at bay is Taiwan. Instead of imposing a lockdown, it moved quickly to bar travel from high-risk locations while screening all other arrivals and enforcing strict quarantine measures. Restaurants, schools and much of the economy kept going, and the island republic of 24 million has recorded just 440 infections and seven deaths.
As the outbreak has brought a temporary end to mass tourism, Taiwan's efficient handling of the pandemic is likely to put it much higher up the international "must see" list than before.
Success against coronavirus is poised to bring tourism rewards as domestic tourism is on the post-lockdown agenda in most parts of Asia. There is plenty to build on, but initially we must keep up the effort to promote healthy habits and save lives so that Asian markets can be the first to recover.