Air travel in Asia-Pacific is trailing the rest of the world and should expect a bumpy recovery as countries in the region have been slower to open borders than other destinations.
The region continued to lag the recovery in 2021. In the first quarter of this year, international travel in Asia-Pacific stood at only 17% of the 2019 level.
However, this was an improvement upon the region’s 2021 average of 7%.
With North Asian countries still largely restricting entry and Southeast Asian countries reopening cautiously, the region's tourism recovery will not be quick, Laura Houldsworth, Booking.com managing director for Asia-Pacific told Reuters.
Asia-Pacific is one of the biggest and most important international markets in the world, according to the International Air Transport Association.
The region should also expect a hit from fewer arrivals from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine triggered a spike in flight cancellations last month.
Beach destinations in Thailand, Indonesia, India and the Maldives are usually popular among Russian tourists.
Globally, the pandemic-hit aviation industry is now showing signs of recovery following removal of travel restrictions and reopening of borders in many countries.
International travel in 2021 stood at only 25% of what was recorded in 2019. But in the first quarter of this year, it has recovered to 48%.
And indeed some parts of the world including Europe, North America, and Latin America, the recovery has reached around 60%, according to IATA Director General Willie Walsh.
Walsh urged Asia-Pacific governments to continue easing measures and bring normalcy to air travel by removing all restrictions for vaccinated travellers.
At a recent industry event in Singapore, he stressed the need to remove quarantine and Covid-19 testing for unvaccinated travellers, where there are high levels of population immunity, which is the case in most parts of Asia.
“Lift the mask mandate for air travel when it is no longer required in other indoor environments and public transport,” Walsh suggested.
“Supporting and more importantly accelerating the recovery will need a whole of industry and government approach. Airlines are bringing back the flights. Airports need to be able to handle the demand. And governments need to be able to process security clearances and other documentation for key personnel efficiently,” said Walsh.
There are two big gaps in the Asia-Pacific recovery story – China and Japan.
“So long as the Chinese government continues to maintain their zero-Covid approach, it is hard to see the country’s borders reopening. This will hold back the region’s full recovery.
“While Japan has taken steps to allow travel, there is no clear plan for the reopening of Japan for all inbound visitors or tourists. More needs to be done to further ease travel restrictions, starting with lifting quarantine for all vaccinated travellers, and removing both the on-arrival airport testing and daily arrival cap. I urge the government of Japan to take bolder steps towards recovery and opening of the country’s borders,” said Walsh.
Certainly, things are improving, but they will not improve fast enough unless countries follow the initiative of countries like Singapore and remove the requirements for tests and quarantine for vaccinated travellers.
“The science supports these initiatives. We now have two years of rich data to support new decisions by governments and I believe, indeed, in IATA, we're convinced that this science supports the removal of testing and quarantine for unvaccinated travellers from areas of high population immunity, including many parts of this region.
“We also believe that where mask mandates are removed for indoor environments and public transport they should also be removed for air transport,” Walsh noted.
It's been a very difficult two years, but fortunately the industry is beginning to see some positive signs. But all segments of the industry now need to work together to ensure that this strong underlying demand can be capitalised. Airports need to be ready for the increase in passenger numbers.
And despite obvious headwinds such as the war in Ukraine, high oil prices and increase inflation, IATA says it remains "very optimistic" about the recovery this year and into 2023.
But Asia-Pacific region will lag this recovery as China continues to pursue zero-Covid policy.
However, it would be great to see countries like Japan take a bold decision, remove restrictions on international tourists and rebuild the work that that country did in growing their tourism industry.
Countries and destinations with less cumbersome entry rules will have a distinct advantage when travellers in many countries take to the skies again!
Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn