Tourism experts have mixed reactions to Asian travel bubble plan to help recovery

Malaysia’s new prime minister says a regional travel bubble, including the 10 members of ASEAN and China, would help business and tourism recover from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. There has been a mixed response from the region’s tourism and business communities.

Malaysia is already planning to reopen its resort islands to domestic visitors next month and hopes to allow foreign tourists back next year.

PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob said on Friday ASEAN and China should consider the cross-border travel bubble for fully vaccinated tourists. “By doing this, we will be in a much better position to revive not only the tourism industry, but also our people-to-people connectivity,” he said.

Some industry insiders have poured cold water on the plan. Beijing has said there will be no outbound travel from China until after the second quarter of next year, news agencies reported last week.

“So far Singapore and Hong Kong have announced travel bubbles four times and cancelled each – and finally its dead in the water,” said Bill Barnett a Phuket, Thailand-based hospitality, tourism and real estate adviser. “Forget bubbles, the Sandbox from Phuket is proven to be a model that works. Vietnam has announced that Phu Quoc will have a similar programme in October for international vaccinated travellers so for now,  it’s all about islands, not bubbles,” he said.

Other travel experts are more optimistic.  “I fully support the work that the new Malaysian PM brought up. I think opening up the closed borders of Asia is very important now for vaccinated tourists. I have been advocating this and chasing the Cambodian government for the last eight months… this would be good, not just for tourism, but all the economy as well,” said Sinan Thuorn, the Cambodia Chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), who welcomed Malaysia’s suggestion of including China in the travel bubble plan. “You know how many million Chinese tourists have been travelling around the world so Chinese have been one of the big markets here in terms of the tourism industry,” he said.

The ASEAN-China travel bubble would only apply to travellers who have received at least two Covid-19 vaccinations. Ismail Sabri said ASEAN and China should work on the mutual recognition of vaccine certificates. The Malaysian PM’s comments came in a pre-recorded speech at the opening of the China-ASEAN Expo and China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit, held in Nanning, the capital of south China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. He said the plan would not just help the tourism industry but also help businesses by keeping supply chains flowing to provide essential goods and services. “This is critical for small and medium enterprises, which form the backbone of our economy.”

ASEAN overtook the EU as China’s largest trading partner last year. ASEAN is set to join China, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership next year, creating the world’s biggest trade zone, with tariffs cut by as much as 90 percent on most products.

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