Countries in Asia and the Pacific need to work together to bring in more visitors from within and outside the region by adopting bilateral and regional agreements, and offering improved infrastructure and better skills.
International tourism is recovering fueled by pent-up demand, but the pace of recovery varies across regions due to differences in how countries built confidence among travelers during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Asia and the Pacific lags in tourism recovery compared to Europe and the Americas because of its cautious stance on reopening borders and more restrictive travel policies. The flow of tourists into the region was only about 10.3% of the pre-pandemic figure of 343 million in 2019, despite bullish year-on-year growth during the first 8 months of 2022.
In comparison, Europe and the Middle East have achieved at least 50% of its pre-pandemic arrival traffic. The pace of recovery also varied across Asia, with around 33% for both Central and South Asia, 12% for Southeast Asia, and 28% for the Pacific. This is likely to change in 2023 as more destinations reopen, particularly in the People’s Republic of China, a major driver of outbound tourism, which opened its international borders for tourist activities in January 2023.
The full recovery of international tourism before 2024 remains uncertain, with 61% of the UN World Tourism Organization experts surveyed believing it will occur later, according to the Asian Economic Integration Report (AEIR) 2023.
Risks to recovery include a global economic slowdown, inflation, and geopolitical pressures. The Russian invasion of Ukraine does impact arrivals into Asia, as Russian travelers accounted for one-third of tourist arrivals into the region prior to COVID-19. Soaring jet fuel prices in Asia are dragging on recovery, reducing flights and increasing airfares. Higher inflation is also limiting travel for tourism.
The brisk recovery of tourism rests on countries’ ability to make it easier to enter and leave countries, which entails stronger global and regional cooperation. To do this, the following policies are needed:
- Tourism-dependent economies must strengthen cooperation with countries outside the region. To counter the damage during COVID-19, caused by heavy reliance of Asian economies on East Asian members as their predominant source market, countries should build partnerships with new source markets such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, by working on common tourism standards. Southeast Asian countries, for example, are promoting their region as one tourist destination, while using international agreements to increase flights from outside the region.
- Cooperation between individual countries in Asia should be accelerated. The Philippines has recently renewed its tourism cooperation with Brunei Darussalam and Thailand, and is crafting a new tourism cooperation agreement with Malaysia to revive arrivals, which had declined by 10.2% between 2015 and 2019.
- Better transport across countries in the region must also be sought. For example, Central Asia’s nascent tourism sector stands to benefit from improved infrastructure being built across the region. Meanwhile, tourism arrivals to India, Bhutan, and Nepal are expected to benefit from the introduction of “regional travel circuits” that package multiple destinations using different types of transportation.
- Countries in the region need to address the tourism industry’s human capital challenges, including increasing youth and female employment, welcoming temporary migrant workers, enhancing skills, and establishing mutual recognition of tourism professionals. These measures, along with harnessing digital technology, will raise competitiveness, increase transparency, and open the sector up to help more people in host countries.
As the tourism recovery gains traction, countries in Asia and the Pacific must capitalize on the opportunities it brings. That includes learning from the pandemic and building a more resilient tourism sector for future crises.