Travel Policy in the COVID-19 Era – Clear as Mud

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Blog post by Jeff Paine

 

Policy makers around the world are trying to cope with COVID-19 and many of them are failing badly.  It is one thing to control the health epidemic, but it is another to mislead citizens and the business community with confusing and ineffective policies during the pandemic.  Tourism has been a big victim of these mismanaged policies.   According to the UNWTO, international tourism was down more than 65% in the first half of 2020.[1]  For places that rely on tourism such as Bali and Phuket, this can have a long lasting and devastating long-term impact on the local economy.  High season is around the corner, so it is crucial that policy makers get their act together fast.

Thailand, for instance, has had several failed programs to lure tourists back to places like Phuket and Chiang Mai.  The Thai government has extended their ‘state of emergency’ status a number of times despite reporting zero COVID cases for a number of months.  The state of emergency status provides the former junta Prime Minister with incredible powers that can bypass the Parliament on major decisions. The Tourism Authority of Thailand has released several schemes which let minimal amounts of tourists into the country with extraordinarily expensive and unworkable programs.  The Special Tourist Visa (STV) is the latest failed attempt.[2]  Despite this scheme being approved by the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) – the government body that is led by the Prime Minister and which is ‘managing’ the pandemic – the first batch of tourists from China never arrived and will not receive refunds on their tourist packages which are now delayed indefinitely.  The STV program requires that tourists quarantine in an approved hotel for 14 days which costs upwards of S$5,000 for a mediocre hotel.  Since international flights to Thailand are extremely limited, they are grossly expensive too.   Thailand embassies around the world are being flooded with people trying to enter the kingdom via special visas with snail-like progress.   Countless people who have retirement or vacation properties in Thailand are not able to enter the country to support the local economy.  Thailand had almost 40 million visitors in 2019, this year in the first quarter they had 6.6 million down from 10.8 million in the first quarter of 2019.[3]

 

How about travel bubbles for work and play?

Singapore is exploring travel bubbles with various countries for ‘business travel’.  What is business travel and why is that different from travel for leisure?   If you are safe to fly for business, you should be safe to fly for leisure.  Singapore to Phuket?  If you test negative within 72 hours you could fly to Phuket.  Upon arrival, you can be escorted by Thai police, military or ministry of health personnel to a luxury pool villa to serve out your quarantine.  You can be tested, remain in your room, and when your time is up you can be tested again and if ok you can be released.  Then when you are safe, you can go out and start spending at restaurants and venues that are still surviving.  The villas where you quarantine would make some revenue and keep their staff gainfully employed.  Policy makers need to keep the process simple…very simple.  The outcome of this is that hotels will make money, airplanes from Singapore will start flying keeping pilots and aircrew gainfully employed, a state of normalcy will return, and the impact will snowball to other places around the world.   Singapore Airlines could easily fill 3-5 planes per week to Phuket alone which is far better than offering flights to nowhere or dinners on a grounded A380.  Thailand would be able to start rebuilding and rehire workers who fled the island when tourism grinded to a halt.

Clear and transparent policies needed for economic rebound

COVID-19 is not going anywhere soon so policy makers need to learn how to live and survive with the pandemic.  Simply waiting for a vaccine is also not a strategy…keep in mind that SARS from 2003 still has no vaccine today.  People don’t have years to sit waiting idle.  Transparency from policy makers is needed more than ever before.  Policies that have general broad definitions such as ‘business travel’ should be avoided.  Communication is also important.  If a government develops a policy for travel or tourism, it should ensure that all the embassies and diplomatic posts around the world have a solid understanding of those policies.  Policy makers need to take smart risks and get economic activity started again.  Shutting things down has tremendous long term economic risks.

[1] https://www.traveldailynews.com/post/international-tourist-numbers-down-65-in-1st-half-of-2020-unwto-reports

[2] https://thethaiger.com/hot-news/visa/no-one-in-guangzhou-applied-for-the-special-tourist-visa

[3] https://www.thaiwebsites.com/tourism.asp#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20tourists%20visiting,and%20now%2039.80%20in%202019.

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