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[ASEAN ISSUE #9] ASEAN Tourism Ministers Reaffirm Commitment to Strengthen Cooperation in Responding to COVID-19 Pandemic

May 22, 2020

ASEAN Tourism Ministers Reaffirm Commitment to Strengthen Cooperation in Responding to COVID-19 Pandemic

The following article is a special contribution by Ms. Khaing Mee Mee Htun, Head of Culture and Tourism Unit of the ASEAN-Korea Centre. (Ms. Khaing is official seconded from Myanmar)

Tourism’s Contribution to ASEAN Economy

The tourism sector of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been a major growth engine for ASEAN economy and has proven resilient amid regional and global challenges. Consistent with the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, the guiding vision for tourism development in ASEAN is, as stipulated in the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (ATSP) 2016-2025, “by 2025, ASEAN will be a quality tourism destination offering a unique, diverse ASEAN experience, and will be committed to responsible, sustainable, inclusive and balanced tourism development, so as to contribute significantly to the socio-economic well-being of ASEAN people.”

Towards achieving the ASEAN tourism vision, two core strategic objectives are set out: (i) to enhance the competitiveness of ASEAN as a single tourism destination; and (ii) to ensure that ASEAN tourism is sustainable and inclusive.

Tourism is an important and integral part of the economies of all ASEAN Member States--especially in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand--where tourism accounts for more than 10% of their respective GDPs and contributes substantially to employment of the workforce. The growth in tourism has made a positive economic impact to the region. In 2018, travel and tourism contributed 12.6% to ASEAN’s economy and 13.7% to total employment.

As a culturally diverse and fascinating tourist destination with its meaningful brand name “Southeast Asia: Feel the Warmth”, ASEAN welcomed 133.1 million tourists in 2019 which represents an increase of 7% from the previous year. Intra-ASEAN travel contributed the major share of tourists, making up 36.7% of total international arrivals in 2018. United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) earlier estimated that total international arrivals to ASEAN was expected to increase to 152 million by 2025, and 187 million by 2030.

In 2019 10.05 million Koreans traveled to ASEAN countries, which makes up over one-third of the total number of Koreans travelling out of the country. ASEAN is the most preferred travel destination for Koreans and in fact, Koreans are the second largest foreign visitors to ASEAN following China. About 2.7 million ASEAN nationals visited Korea last year and two-way traffic reached 12.75 million. Since 2017, Korea has been stepping up efforts to invigorate exchanges with ASEAN as part of its New Southern Policy and the two regions have agreed to reach the target of 15 million people-to-people exchanges by 2020. The goal appeared to be right around the corner, until the COVID-19 blocked all exchanges early this year.

Impacts of Covid-19 on ASEAN Tourism

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), over 100 million tourism related jobs are at risk worldwide due to COVID-19. ASEAN is no exception from this vulnerability. As countries impose lockdown measures--including border closures, quarantines, movement control orders, business closures and travel restrictions--to contain the virus, decline in tourist flows, disruption in air travel, and weakening of consumer and business confidence have become inevitable.

Thailand, one of the top destinations in ASEAN, anticipates to losing five million tourists and over US$ 8 billion in tourism revenue this year. In February, tourist arrivals in Thailand dropped by 77%. Thailand's community-based tourism (CBT) operators, freelance guides and drivers from the local communities have been severely impacted - a few are returning to their previous livelihood in agriculture or food delivery or scrambling for jobs in other businesses. Likewise, Cambodia, highly dependent on tourism as a key booster of the economy, faces severe challenges. Cambodian government has reported a 60% decrease in the number of tourist arrivals since February this year. This April, Angkor Wat--the most popular among overseas tourists-- received only 654 visitors, a sharp drop from 185,403 visitors compared to the same period last year.

In Malaysia, it is said that the pandemic is the worst crisis the country's tourism sector has ever encountered. It has not only put a damper on the “Visit Malaysia 2020” campaign but also has affected more than 3.5 million people working in the tourism industry. The country's two largest airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Asia Airlines (LCC) have been hit hard in both domestic and international routes. Director-General of Tourism Malaysia said, 'it may take months for the tourism industry to recover from the effects of COVID-19'. In the more hopeful scenario, the tourism sector in Malaysia is expected to slowly recover at the end of the year and stabilize by June 2021.

The once burgeoning interactions between ASEAN and Korea have also been put on hold. There has been literally no travelling between the two regions in recent months. Even after quarantine measures are lifted and countries slowly begin to open up again, it will take some time before people feel comfortable travelling abroad again. In this regard, the target of reaching 15 million people-to-people exchange between ASEAN and Korea by the end of this year may not be so feasible as once expected. Efforts need to be made to ensure that the disruption caused by the epidemic is not prolonged and adversely affect the once thriving exchanges between ASEAN and Korea.

Outcomes of the “Special Meeting of the ASEAN Tourism Ministers on Coronavirus Disease 2019”

With the aim to enhance the sector’s cooperation and adopt response measures to combat the pandemic, the “Special Meeting of the ASEAN Tourism Ministers on Coronavirus Disease 2019” was convened via a video conference on 29 April 2020. The Meeting was chaired by H.E. Dr. Thong Khon, Minister of Tourism of Cambodia, and a Joint Statement on strengthening cooperation amid COVID-19 was released that focused on mitigation measures and future plans to revitalize ASEAN tourism.

First, the Ministers recognized ‘the urgent need for a strengthened ASEAN coordination mechanism to collectively overcome surging challenges to the tourism sector, one of the worst-hit economic sectors in the pandemic’.

Second, with a view to providing timely and reliable information for inbound and outbound travelers and tourism operators, the Ministers agreed to accelerate information exchange on travel-related health and other measures undertaken by ASEAN Member States through the enhanced operation of the ASEAN Tourism Crisis Communication Team (ATCCT).

They also agreed to put more efforts in sharing information and exchanging best practices among ASEAN Member States as well as with ASEAN Dialogue Partners on the overall response measures including communications readiness, connectivity coordination, national relief efforts and measures to support the tourism sector.

Third, the Ministers agreed to cooperate in implementing clear policies and measures to bolster confidence among domestic and international visitors to Southeast Asia, including developing clear standards and guidelines for a safer and healthier work environment to protect workers and communities in the hospitality and tourism-related industries in ASEAN.

Fourth, the Ministers confirmed to support the development and implementation of a post COVID-19 Crisis Recovery Plan which includes, among others, engaging with industry stakeholders to instill business and consumer confidence, and exploring creative and innovative solutions to stimulate the tourism sector especially through the use of digital technologies, marketing efforts and joint tourism promotion programs with the goal to advance ASEAN as a single tourism destination.

On top of that, they agreed to expedite both micro and macro-economic policies on providing technical supports and financial stimulus which includes tax alleviation and capacity building assistance especially in digital skills. In line with ASEAN's principle of inclusiveness and “leaving no one behind,” special emphasis will be placed on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), vulnerable groups and other affected communities.

The Way Forward

UNWTO stresses that the travel and tourism require ‘urgent support and specific mitigation packages to sustain jobs and ensure capacity in the market in the immediate aftermath of the emergency’. The attempts to mitigate the impact of the crisis and stimulate tourism recovery can benefit with massive returns across the whole economy. Tourism sector, undoubtedly, has the potential to significantly contribute directly and indirectly to global job creation and economic recovery through its multiplier effect.

In a nutshell, and in the context of ASEAN, the tourism sector will make integrated efforts and implement mitigation measures and recommendations highlighted in the recent guidelines and statements of ASEAN Leaders and Tourism Ministers. The priorities to be undertaken by the ASEAN tourism sector include, among others, (i) developing a post-pandemic recovery plan, (ii) conducting a proper assessment of the impact of the pandemic on tourism, (iii) exploring a regional strategy to prepare the tourism sector against similar crises in the future, (iv) intensifying public-private-partnership, (v) enhancing joint tourism marketing and promotion, (vi) promoting safety and well-being, (vii) monitoring travel facilitation, (viii) re-activating connectivity, (ix) promoting the use of technology and digital transformation in tourism, and (x) strengthening cooperation with dialogue partners and international organizations in combating and overcoming this crisis.

As one of ASEAN’s largest partners in the tourism sector, Korea has much to offer in terms of revitalizing ASEAN tourism, and ASEAN will collaborate closely with Korea to step up efforts for the recovery of travel-related businesses and jobs while simultaneously maintaining health precautions. Together, the two regions can identify and create the best possible models in the face of the “new normal” of tourism industry in the region.

Over the years, the ASEAN-Korea Centre has been instrumental in promoting tourism and people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and Korea. In addition to well-known tourism sites, the Centre made efforts to introduce ASEAN’s UNESCO registered heritages, second destinations that are less known to Korean travelers, as well as diverse programs including community-based tourism where travelers can experience the local culture and habitat first-hand.

Now, as ASEAN and Korea work together to overcome the current challenges faced by their respective tourism sectors, the Centre will also play its part to re-invigorate ASEAN-Korea tourism. In the immediate future, as we still await improvement of situation in countries across the region and subsequent lifting of quarantine measures, the Centre will organize a seminar to share information on the current situation and exchange ideas on how to reboost ASEAN-Korea tourism in the post-pandemic era.

ReferencesJoint Statement of the ASEAN Tourism Ministers on Strengthening Cooperation to Revitalize ASEAN Tourism World Travel and Tourism Council (http://wttc.org/)https://asean.org/storage/2020/04/ENDORSED-Joint-Statement-of-the-ASEAN-Tourism-Ministers-on-COVID_19-29Apr20.pdfhttps://asean.org/storage/2020/04/ASEAN-Policy-Brief-April-2020_FINAL.pdfhttps://asean.org/storage/2019/11/ASEAN-integration-report-2019.pdfhttps://wttc.org/en-us/Research/Economic-Impacthttps://theaseanpost.com/article/tourism-thailand-and-cambodia-take-virus-hithttps://www.dw.com/en/the-coronavirus-crisis-has-hit-tourism-in-malaysia-hard/a-53392776ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plan (2016-2025)

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