#TravelLocal – The importance of Asia’s domestic tourism during the pandemic


Along with other business sectors that have been forced into indefinite stagnation, the fate of Asia’s travel and tourism industry lies in the balance between the need to contain the virus and the need to restart the economy. And it is this particular dilemma that has the entire world under complete tension. All the while, standing right behind these monumental gates await the flocks of travellers looking to refill their need for new landscapes and their longing for new experiences. 

According to the World Economic Forum data for 2019, Asia Pacific is the fastest-growing Travel and Tourism region, an industry supporting the livelihood of some 35 million people. For Thailand, a country with the highest share in tourism employment in Southeast Asia, the risk is particularly immense. And it does not help that China, the very source of the outbreak, is its largest tourism market.

However, it has also proven to be one of the most effective in containing the spread of the virus.

Compared to other countries with a similar history of high international inbound traffic, Thailand has one of the lowest local transmission rates, one of the lowest death rates, and one of the highest recovery rates for COVID-19. Several other tourism-dependent nations have had similar success with containment, such as South Korea and until recently, Japan.

Even though progress is necessarily slow, the efforts of these countries have allowed them just enough breathing room to leverage their local tourism. This gives their T&T sectors a fighting chance to outlast the economic deluge brought by the pandemic.

Despite the notable achievement, this handful of low-risk Asian countries is nowhere near getting back on their usual track. For one thing, to be able to re-operate their tourism arm, they need to have an open and safe bridge between a substantial number of foreign countries.

The ‘Travel Bubbles’ scheme, previously under discussion, has some promises. But inter-travel among themselves will only account for a small fraction of the needed income – that is if the program will actually work.

The announcement of the EU opening its borders to several Asian countries (the list includes Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and even China) was also a big break. However, with the recent resurgence of new cases, international travel will likely altogether be postponed even further. This means reliance on domestic tourism becomes even more crucial as the fight to endure the hiatus continues.

But there are good reasons to lay hopes on this notion. We do know that Asia and the Pacific have the largest aggregate domestic travel market. Japan, for instance, sees about 650 million local tourists traveling within its territory each year, generating some 20 trillion Yen for the Japanese economy. Thailand, South Korea, and Japan have already taken giant steps in promoting domestic travel, pouring in funds to boost the efforts.

One of the essential goals of the campaign is to channel their own outbound tourists into the local market. About 12 million Thai nationals were forecasted to travel abroad this year and the government’s Tourism Authority aims to net at least half of that number to feed its thirsting holiday destinations. South Korea is also working on the same tactic, with a much larger outbound tourist market of 28 million people based on last year’s statistics.

Last May, Airbnb also reported that their data reflect a positive increase in domestic tourism worldwide. The OTA giant has taken the initiative to feature local tours and accommodations in their user interface and other companies have also followed suit.

This proves that people are still inspired to travel despite prevailing conditions. And though the prospect of adventuring in a foreign country is still not on the menu, the chance to re-discover the wonders of their local region is becoming a welcomed choice for many.

Of course, this does not come without attention to health and safety. Accommodation and leisure establishments have all reinforced their cleaning protocols with some even hiring “Hygiene Experts” as part of their managerial roster. The upscale market affords advantageous travel options which allow minimum contact and poses less risk of infection such as flying via private jet and staying at luxury villas.

Though the damage of the COVID-19 phenomenon is beyond measure, we find courage in how travel and tourism in Asia continue to show its resiliency. In fact, we all have seen it before – we have battled through terrifying tsunamis, civil wars, volcano eruptions, wildfires, and more. And yet the industry never fails to rebound time and time again.

We cannot, however, ignore the scale and magnitude of this new and unprecedented obstacle. With 96 percent of the world implementing some form of travel restriction within just a span of 6 months, the travel community has never experienced a shift this drastic, this wide-spread, and this enduring. Surely, there is a myriad of other factors that will play in the recovery, but domestic tourism is certainly one tributary that is making a significant impact, a vital lifeline during these trying times.

Silvan Kitma is General Manager of The Private World. The Private World is a villa rentals company offering some the most top-rated luxury vacation home rentals in the world’s top tourist destinations.

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Comments (8)

  1. Pete says:

    The importance of domestic tourism is going to be vital for so many countries over probably what will be a year or two. Even if we are ultimately protected by an effective virus there will still be a couple of factors putting a brake on overseas tourism. It is likely that the vaccine will be less effective the older the traveller and lets be honest it is the baby boomers who won with final salary pensions and property value inflation who are a big-spending market segment. Then there are a surprising number of people with immunodeficiency health problems, I’ve been amazed how many of my friends have been in full-scale isolation. They too are going to be reluctant to travel. For the rest of us who are desperate to catch up on missed miles there may not be as many flights available as there once were. Already some airlines have ceased flying and others are on the verge of bankruptcy. From where I’m standing and I’m frequently wrong, it may well be that many countries have to look to domestic tourism to make good the short fall for quite a while.

    • Sam says:

      Yes, domestic travel is a boon for countries that are dealing with strict international travel restrictions. Unfortunately, over the past week or two some of the countries in Southeast Asia are facing a second wave of COVID cases. So, while it’s definitely frustrating I think there will eventually be some bright spots in this region of the world. Hopefully they can set some new standards for countries in the West still struggling…

  2. Sheila says:

    A lot of us travellers have lost our confidence. Going from only leaving the house to occasionally buy food to planning a holiday is huge. For a lot of us it’s only going to be baby steps, perhaps a night or two away without coming in to too much contact with other people.

    It can’t be easy for hotels either, knowing that they have so much responsibility for other guests safety. I would expect that they too want a steady controlled start so that they are confident that all their measures are working. Consequently it looks as if serving the domestic market will be the way back for much of the tourism industry.

    • Amanda says:

      That’s been one of the most difficult things to wrap my head around during these social distancing periods and lockdowns. All these hotels that have to shutter their doors, right at the peak of the summer months. And then I’ve met people graduating this year with a major in tourism and hotels. Not an easy start to their lives! This is a huge test for a lot of people.

  3. Emma Oliver says:

    It must be incredibly difficult to make the big decisions when it comes to containing the outbreak and saving lives, versus restarting the economy. Many countries are having to do that now as restrictions lift, and opinions as to whether the decisions are the best ones are very varied. It must be especially difficult where tourism is such a key part of the country to sustain so many livelihoods and I imagine China will feel the ramifications for longer given it was the epicentre and start of the outbreak, or at least it’s thought to be.

    It’s interesting about Thailand though, I hadn’t realised it had such a low rate of infection and high rate of recovery in comparison. I’ve always fancied the idea of going there.

    You’re right with how the data for travel already is showing the desire to travel is still there, virus and restrictions be damned. Hopefully when the pandemic is over, I assume when there’s a vaccine, the markets will make a big booming comeback as people travel freely and without fear. Here’s to hoping that day comes sooner rather than later!

  4. Maddie says:

    It really is a delicate balance for any nation, even those who have managed to contain the virus infection locally. I’m a bit skeptical on relying on just local travel to restart the tourism industry and the national economy. As the article says, like Thailand, it relies heavily on foreigners traveling to their shores. But I am not as unbelieving about the people wanting to explore their own countries first given that many international borders are still closed. I myself am venturing little by little outside of my city and into nearby suburbs. Though I haven’t planned on staying over anywhere yet. I’m not as comfortable and I am still worried. The current state of things is not helping at all.

    • Pete says:

      From what I understand, Thailand is still heavily restricting international travel. There were plans to open up international flights again, at least that was going to happen here in Vietnam in Da Nang. They’d planned to open up flights from Vietnam to South Korea, China, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Japan. And then in the last week, there was another outbreak here. So yeah, it’s becoming very arduous and repetitive. But I know one thing, people in Southeast Asia are very resilient.

  5. Marc C. says:

    Most asian countries take pride in its breathtaking beaches, beautiful landscapes, rich culture, and local cuisine. These are probably the things that tourists look forward to whenever they visit an asian country. These things are also what makes tourism a great contributor in any country’s economy. However, with lockdowns and travel bans imposed in many borders around the world, the tourism industry is the one that suffers the most. With that being said, health and safety measures must be strictly obsereved and implemented in these countries in order for them to open its doors to tourists soon. Most importantly, opening the country to local travelers will help boost the industry again without having to sacrifice the health of anyone. It must be ensured though that local transmission has been controlled for people to feel safe traveling even within their own borders.

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