ASEAN Tourism’s Response to COVID-19 and the Road to Recovery
Benito C. Bengzon, Jr.
Benito C. Bengzon Jr. is Undersecretary for Tourism Development of the Department of Tourism of the Philippines. He also serves as the Chair of the ASEAN Tourism Competitive Committee.
Tourism Cooperation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Republic of Korea (Korea) has been strengthened by the principle of appreciation for each other’s cultural, natural, and historical richness and a mutual goal of advancing tourism as a driver for economic growth and societal stability. In the context of working together, ASEAN and Korea welcomed an era of collaborative partnership through the establishment of the ASEAN-Korea Centre (AKC) and the roll-out of programs that reach out to the stakeholders of both ASEAN and Korea to sow the seeds of a prosperous future.
The current crisis brought about by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed the tourism industry at a critical tipping point, as the sector battles a downward trend with a magnitude considered three times as adverse as that of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis . The impact of the pandemic, both in terms of the decline in tourist arrivals and the loss of revenues, and the continuing imposition of travel restrictions worldwide put much strain on the industry’s businesses, dependent communities, and national economies.
Through the lens of policy-makers, the current health crisis challenges not only the international cooperation framework but also tests the very foundation that was laid down over the course of its implementation. This overview of the response and mitigation activities being implemented, both at the regional level and individually by the ASEAN Member States, explores the capacity and strength of the region to pursue a recovery moving forward. To highlight the industry’s best practices and cooperation initiatives to regain confidence in traveling and to strengthen the support for vulnerable industry sectors, let us look into the outlook and mechanisms that reinforce the commitment among ASEAN and Korean tourism sectors.
History of Steady Growth in ASEAN-Korea Tourism
Revisiting the past decade’s impressive gains in tourism activities shared between ASEAN and Korea, it is important to recognize the tremendous rise in visitor exchange between the two regions. Upon breaching the 1 million mark for travel from ASEAN to Korea in 2010, the figure has more than tripled with approximately 3.59 million ASEAN tourists visiting Korea by the end of 2019 . The statistics from the other end of the scope are even more impressive. The number of Korean nationals traveling to the ASEAN region was at 3.32 million in 2010, and grew to around 10 million by 2019 . The growth has been steady and robust, with Korean nationals forming a large percentage of national inbound traffic for the majority of ASEAN Member States.
This remarkable growth is attributed to the well-oiled collaboration between ASEAN and Korea -- an enhanced cooperation that led to a more favorable air travel policy and infrastructure development that opened new destinations to tourists.
This upward trajectory is what has been hit the hardest by the global health crisis. Years of bullish turnout have stalled amidst the global pandemic with an estimated 34% decline for the first quarter of 2020 alone in ASEAN’s tourism arrivals partnered with a proportionate contraction of tourism revenue figures at 36% .
Road to Recovery
To mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ASEAN Member States implemented various measures to support the industry. ASEAN countries focused on two directions: the provision of fiscal and non-fiscal support to stakeholders, and the unanimous support towards building a tourism industry relying on digital systems .
The ASEAN Member States provided fiscal and non-fiscal support to their respective tourism industries through policies and programs such as:
● Deferment of Taxes and Other Fees at varying coverage for each ASEAN Member State
● Soft Loans and Financial Assistance to businesses (particularly MSMEs) and displaced workers
● Capacity Development Programs
The ASEAN Tourism Ministers acknowledged that to be able to move forward from this health crisis, ASEAN tourism must become a more competitive and more integrated industry by extensively and aggressively applying digital economy principles to support travel facilitation, business transactions, marketing, and destination management and operation. Recognizing this need, the ASEAN National Tourism Organizations proceeded to finalize the Declaration on Digital Tourism which shall become the basis for future policies on innovation and digitalization for ASEAN tourism.
The ASEAN Member States through their respective National Tourism Organizations aligned various programs and initiated new activities to promote the effective recovery of ASEAN and Korean tourism industries.
On Ensuring Safety and Regaining Confidence-To-Travel, the ASEAN Tourism Ministers mandated the enhanced operation of the ASEAN Tourism Crisis Communication Team (ATCCT), which aims to provide timely and reliable information for travelers and tourism operators throughout the region. ASEAN seeks to develop a consolidated approach through minimum standards and protocols that would allow the resumption of tourism activities in the region.
One way to restart tourism activities is by facilitating travel bubbles. In order to restart movement in the tourism industry and promote economic recovery for the sector, ASEAN puts emphasis into a well-facilitated travel bubble or travel corridor scheme for its local and other accessible markets as recommended by the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). We at the ASEAN NTOs are currently finalizing the measures on how to promote safe and effective corridors for intra-ASEAN and international travel.
The establishment of tourist travel bubbles under the proposed ASEAN Framework to Facilitate Tourist Travel Bubble Schemes shall be guided by the following principles of (1) Mutual trust or recognition of epidemiological conditions and capabilities, particularly with regard to the assessment risk of infection; (2) Transparency and reciprocity, given that all travel bubble schemes will be implemented on the basis of reciprocity and mutual recognition of travel protocols; (3) Inclusiveness -- leveraging on the community-building process of ASEAN; and (4) Encouraging the use of digital technology to promote the effective implementation of the framework, especially by promoting the interoperability between the ASEAN Member States’ digital technologies to control the spread of COVID-19 while implementing travel bubble schemes.
Lastly, focusing on “New Normal” markets and products refers to the prioritization of marketing and product development on source markets that have a proven record of strong turnouts and the volume that could help the industry bounce back. As the focus on tourism for the immediate timeframe shifted from tapping global market into harnessing the potential of domestic ones, ASEAN gives particular attention to the accessibility of short-haul markets and offering tourism products and experiences fitted for the standards of the “new normal” such as an enhanced ecotourism sub-sector, rural tourism and a more specialized tourism product portfolio, away from the mass tourism templates of the pre-pandemic industry.
Better Normal for ASEAN-Korea Tourism
Despite facing one of the biggest setbacks in the global travel and tourism industry, the ASEAN tourism industry is optimistic that through the continuing cordial cooperation that we have with Korea, we will be closer to our goal of bouncing back from the impacts of the pandemic, mitigating the remaining threats and turning losses into knowledge gained.
Now is the perfect opportunity for both ASEAN and Korea to look into sustainability and the measures we must implement to guarantee a genuine evolution and not a mere revival of the old ways of the industry -- may it be on health and safety, digitalization, environmental conservation or the protection of the vulnerable members of our society. These unprecedented and unforgiving times have pushed us to reboot, rethink, and realign our principles with our actions, especially when we are coming from a time when tourism revenue was fueling the steady growth of our economies and providing livelihoods for our people
We in ASEAN look up to Korea in mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. By benchmarking on Korea’s best practices and adapting it to the ASEAN Member States, we are confident we can better address the challenges posed by the pandemic and help accelerate the recovery of tourism in the region and restore livelihood especially at the community level.
- Impact of COVID-19 n Global Tourism Made Clear as UNWTO Counts the Cost of Standstill, UN World Tourism Organization
- ASEAN, China, Japan, and Republic of Korea (ASEAN Plus Three) Tourism Performance, Report of the 23rd Meeting of the ASEAN Tourism Ministers
- 2019 ASEAN and Korea in Figures, ASEAN-Korea Centre
- ASEAN Tourism Performance, ASEAN National Tourism Organizations
- Consolidated Paper on Impact and Measures to Mitigate the Impact of COVID-19 to the ASEAN Tourism Industry, ASEAN National Tourism Organizations
- Concept Paper on Developing the ASEAN Framework to Facilitate Tourist Travel Bubble Schemes, ASEAN Secretariat
The views and opinions expressed in the above article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ASEAN-Korea Centre.