Asia Slowly Shifts Out of Survival Mode

14 April 2022

Tourism in Asia has been one of the hardest hit in the world during the pandemic, thanks to aggressive zero-COVID policies in 2020, followed by Delta flare-ups in mid-2021 and Omicron surges in late 2021. 

As of March 2022, the UNWTO Tourism Recovery Tracker showed that the Asia and the Pacific region as a whole is still -87% down for actual air reservations compared to 2019, with North-East Asia -98% vs 2019, and South-East Asia -91% vs 2019. 

Numbers like that make for grim reading, and it is easy to sometimes get caught up in the feeling that Asia’s tourism recovery is stuck, particularly when recent headlines such as China’s wholesale lockdown of Shanghai continue to dominate the news.

Of course, countries such as China and Japan remain firmly shut to international travelers right now, but if we look beyond those hard-hitting numbers and headlines, we thankfully start to see green shoots in other parts of the region.

As the first quarter of 2022 progressed, a growing number of countries chose to throw open their doors to vaccinated international tourists once more, amongst them Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Vietnam. They add to those countries that already took the plunge earlier on during the pandemic: the Maldives (who surpassed their 2020 visitor arrivals in 2021), Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and Singapore.

Asia’s border reopening is not the “big bang” style one we’ve seen in Europe, and certainly many countries still impose a fair number of regulations for tourists to navigate, from pre-departure testing to registering for health passes - but, they are still choosing to open. Countries are discussing what it means to consider COVID-19 endemic and learning to live with the virus.

As both international and domestic tourism opens up, the momentum of adventure tourism in the region is growing apace, and not only to cater to the expected international travelers. 

For example, Son Doong Cave in Quang Binh, Vietnam, the biggest cave on the planet, has seen its 1,000 visitor slots for 2022 be fully booked by domestic visitors, and in early January of this year, it had already sold 100 slots for 2023.

Cambodia has seen a larger number of domestic tourists opt for adventure tourism since the pandemic, to local destinations such as the Khnong Phsar Mountain, Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, and Kirirom National Park. The World Bank has embarked on a Cambodia Sustainable Landscape and Ecotourism Project, promoting eco-tourism opportunities within the Cardamom Mountains-TonleSap (CMTS) landscape.

New adventure tourism products and safeguarding are also being put into place across the region: the Trans-Bhutan Trail, a 250-mile long trail linking Haa in the west of Bhutan to Trashigang in the east, reopened in April for the first time in 60 years, a partnership between ATTA Member G Adventures, the Trans Bhutan Trail and Bhutan Canada Foundation.

This month, Thailand banned the use of Styrofoam packaging and single-use plastics from its national parks, with fines of up to $3,000 USD, in a bid to protect its ecology. Last year, Thailand implemented a ban on certain sunscreens with harmful chemicals from being used in marine parks to protect delicate coral reefs.

The tourism industry in many parts of Asia is now moving away from survival mode, as borders reopen and travel is on the up. The road to recovery will not be a smooth one, but it’s heartening to see governments across the region start to focus on the benefits that adventure tourism brings, not only in terms of revenue but value to the communities and ecology which it revolves around.