October 14, 2021

Asia

SOUTHEAST ASIA: Reopening to tourists, plus some vaccine hesitancy

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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Across much of the region, countries are accelerating their plans to reopen their economies to foreign tourists. Several factors — but primarily rising rates of vaccination and pressure from business groups and small and medium enterprises — are raising policymakers’ willingness to ease restrictions.

Inbound tourism plans

  • Thailand has the most advanced implementation of the sandbox scheme and is now expanding it to other cities and tourist areas. The government will require only PCR tests for fully vaccinated tourists from the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore and China in two phases starting 1 November, without need of quarantine if they travel to specified provinces.
  • Indonesia has reopened Bali to foreign tourists from 19 countries, including China and several European and Middle Eastern ones, but they must still serve a five-day quarantine in a hotel. The policy was only announced on Wednesday and so far, no foreign flights have been booked. Visitors also need a local guarantor to obtain a visa.
  • Vietnam and Malaysia are planning to reopen some destinations to fully vaccinated foreign tourists in the fourth quarter. Entry will be allowed to specific destinations such as Phu Quoc, Hoi An, Dalat and Na Trang in Vietnam, and the Langkawi island group for Malaysia.
  • Cambodia and the Philippines have not yet disclosed any near-term plans to accept foreign tourists. Policy changes in these countries may have to wait until the first quarter of next year. The Philippines is easing some inbound travel rules for its citizens abroad, which could help increase inward traveler flows due to its large overseas worker population.

To ease public concerns, governments are attempting to define the risks from reopening less by the number of new Covid-19 cases and more by the numbers of serious cases and the ability of their respective healthcare systems to absorb them. However, persistent public and internal debates over the extent of the risks from reopening are still likely to generate uncertainties and policy inconsistencies that could deliver underwhelming results in the near term — as has been Phuket’s experience.

But even the limited success of their policies is likely to encourage their continuation and expansion into the first quarter. Also, not to be underestimated is the demonstration effect in the region. The trade, tourism and migration-dependent economies of the region are also mindful of not becoming, or being seen as, more uncompetitive due to Covid-19 related restrictions. Thus, the more Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand reopen, the greater the pressure eventually on the Cambodia, Indonesia and Philippines.

Indonesia and the Philippines are seeing vaccine uptake flattening, which

could hinder broader reopening plans early next year

After a slow start earlier in the year, the vaccination rate accelerated significantly in Southeast Asia over the past four months. About half of the region’s countries have more than half of their population with at least one vaccine shot: Singapore (80%), Cambodia (80%), Brunei (76%), Malaysia (75%) and Thailand (51%). Given its vaccination trajectory, Vietnam (41%) may reach the 50% threshold in the next few weeks. Myanmar (15%) is limited by the civil unrest in the country.

But the region’s two most populated countries, Indonesia (37%) and the Philippines (25%), are registering anecdotal reports of vaccine hesitancy, or at least difficulties as they attempt to reach more people in less-densely populated areas. For instance, in Indonesia the seven-day average for daily vaccinations dropped to 0.48% of the population by 7 October, from 0.62% in the previous week, although the rate has started to recover in the past few days.

Although some of this may be due to gaps in the supply chain and lack of healthcare workers as the campaign spreads from concentrated urban areas, it may also be due to vaccine hesitancy manifesting. Indonesian local governments are already recalibrating by expanding their outreach programs, taking vaccination efforts to universities, liberalizing the administration process (even allowing political parties to be involved in distribution), and requesting more central government funds for remote areas. Thus, the recovery in the vaccination rate may continue.

Hesitancy and the lack of healthcare workers may be more of a problem in the Philippines, even though vaccine deliveries have increased and the national supply is now more than adequate. The daily vaccination rate peaked at about 0.64% of the population in August, but been on a flat or downward trend since then and is now in the mid-0.30s. The Philippine government initially focused its third quarter vaccination drive on Metro Manila and urban centers, so the campaign may be hitting a threshold and the numbers could improve as efforts shift to the countryside and to the teenage population. Healthcare workers have also been resigning due to low or delayed pay, with many looking to work abroad. But even anecdotally, there is some hesitancy linked to apprehension about side effects, the distance (and cost) of traveling to a vaccination center and a wait-and-see perspective in rural areas where access to vaccine information is weaker. There is also still significant hesitancy among seniors, with the government reporting that it is missing its targets among the most vulnerable in the population.

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