Tourism has been one of the hardest hit sectors by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic this year, fueled by extensive international travel restrictions and the fear of infections. In 2020, Asia is expected to have welcomed 75% fewer international tourists compared to 2019. The economic consequences for economies most dependent on tourism are severe. The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that more than 60 million jobs in the travel and tourism industry will be lost in Asia and the Pacific due to the pandemic.

The pandemic may have stemmed the opportunity to exercise wanderlust but not the desire—and that is where domestic travel can play a role. Recent research by the Asian Development Bank shows that for about half of the economies in Asia, domestic tourism has the potential to fill the gap left by international travelers. For example, the Philippines received in 2018 about 7 million international tourists, while 8 million Filipinos traveled abroad. If all outbound tourists stayed in the Philippines, then the country would have an excess demand of 1 million.

However, mobilizing domestic tourists is far from simple. Many governments have limited domestic travel as part of the stringent measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 internally. Such local lockdowns or domestic travel restrictions severely restrict travelers’ choices. Further, travelers’ confidence is undermined by the continued fear of infection.

In the case of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), domestic tourism has recovered quickly. During the Golden Week in October 2020, the number of domestic visits reached 80% of last year’s total. Hubei province, once the epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic, has been particularly successful in attracting domestic tourists. Travel and tourism businesses offered considerable discounts, which stimulated demand.

According to a recent survey by McKinsey from October 2020, Chinese travelers are also increasingly warming to the idea of traveling abroad, with almost a third of respondents ready to travel overseas for their next leisure trip.

Opening borders for Chinese tourists would prove an important economic stimulus for many countries in Asia. Prior to the pandemic, Chinese tourists formed by far the largest group of foreign tourists in many destinations. For example, in 2018, one in three foreign visitors to Cambodia, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, Palau, and Viet Nam was Chinese. And it is not just about high numbers, because Chinese tourists were also among the top spenders. On average, a Chinese tourist spent about $2,500 abroad per head—substantially more than tourists from Japan or the Republic of Korea.

One promising approach to reopening borders for tourism is instituting travel bubbles or green lanes. These are bilateral agreements between governments to allow for business and/or leisure travel according to agreed health protocols. The first travel bubble in Asia and the Pacific was established between the PRC and the Republic of Korea in May, but was limited to business travelers. In past months, we have seen more and more travel bubbles introduced, but almost all are limited to business and essential travel. In the months to come, travel bubbles that allow for leisure travel are urgently needed to help rescue Asia’s tourism sector.

In designing travel bubbles aimed at leisure tourists, first priority must be public health considerations. Governments in tourism dependent countries cannot put at risk the success achieved in fighting the pandemic. For example, several Pacific islands are COVID-19 free and their governments would like to preserve this status. Several countries in Southeast Asia, such as Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, and Viet Nam have also managed to keep the number of new COVID-19 cases marginal.

Given the PRC’s equal success in containing the pandemic, establishing travel bubbles between these countries is the next logical step forward. Allowing Chinese tourists to visit these countries could make a significant difference to their local economies and provide a lifeline for their hard-hit tourism sector.

To keep the risk of infections to a minimum, governments need to agree on and be able to implement strict health and safety protocols. Recently, Thailand has agreed to welcome again Chinese tourists, but implements a 14-day quarantine. Such quarantine requirements, however, could fall short of supporting tourism effectively by making tourism abroad rather impractical. It would be better instead to boost COVID-19 testing requirements and mandate the installation of a contact tracing app upon arrival. The roll-out of vaccines and the concept of mutually agreed vaccine passes provide another promising avenue forward. Partner countries also need to establish detailed contingency plans in case of new positive cases. Ultimately, though, to revive international tourism in a sustained way, travelers will need to regain confidence that they can travel reasonably safely abroad.   

The PRC and several countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific have been particularly successful in fighting the pandemic. They have become low-risk, which makes them natural partners to form travel bubbles. The region therefore has the potential to show to the world not only how to handle the pandemic, but also how to reopen tourism for the prosperity of all.