Malaysia begins talks with neighbours on ‘travel bubble’

Malaysia says intra-Asean travel is the best way for the tourism industry to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

PETALING JAYA: Asean member states are trying to restore tourist confidence post-Covid-19 and kickstart regional travel by agreeing to initiating “travel bubbles” between themselves.

Speaking at an online forum organised by the Federation of Asean Travel Associations (FATA) on the future of travel in the region, the secretary-general of the tourism, arts and culture ministry, Noor Zari Hamat, said Malaysia had started official bilateral discussions with neighbouring countries to implement the “travel bubble”, once their international borders start opening up in the region.

A travel bubble is where travel is allowed between countries which have contained the Covid-19 pandemic. Travellers from other countries are not allowed.

Some countries have already started this. The three Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania last week started a travel bubble whereby individuals who have not travelled outside the three nations over the last two weeks and who have not been infected are allowed to travel without restrictions among the three states.

“The concept of a travel bubble is something that we can discuss further to allow movement of people between the region,” Noor Zari said.

“The Asean countries must work together by having the same platform and protocol to allow travel among people in the region.”

However, he noted that at the Asean level, there was no indication yet of when international borders would start opening.

Noor Zari said there was a need to focus on intra-Asean travel as international tourism from medium and long-haul destination markets would take a longer time to recover.

“I believe that intra-Asean is the best bet for the region to restart the tourism industry post-Covid-19.”

While waiting for borders to reopen, he suggested that member states work towards restoring mobility in their respective countries and designing health and safety protocols, taking into consideration the entire tourism value chain from border management to attractions.

As the technicalities and protocols were being developed, he said, the Asean states’ national tourist organisations should work towards stimulating demand through promotion and digital marketing.

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s ministry of tourism assistant undersecretary for marketing development, Vinsensius Jemadu, said his government was looking to open up travel to Bali and Jakarta first, by 2021.

“As far as international travel is concerned, there is no indication to when Indonesia will open the borders given the fact that the dynamics and development of Covid-19 are really different,” he said.

He said that at the moment, the government was trying to regain public confidence, by publicising Indonesia’s efforts to prepare safety, cleanliness and health protocols for top destinations.

“We are focusing on encouraging the industry stakeholders to put in place the cleanliness, health and safety protocols. Next year, we will be ready to welcome the visitors, focusing on Bali and Jakarta and then we move to other destinations.”

The Philippines’ undersecretary at the Department of Tourism, Benito C Bengzon Jr, said tourism in the country registered a record-high of 8.3 million international tourist arrivals last year, which contributed 12.7% to their GDP.

He said despite not knowing when the country’s borders would open up to international tourists, its tourism department was backing a unified move for an Asean-wide kickstart for commercial travel in the region.

“The Philippines is already working towards it,” he said, adding that they were putting in place “new normal” practices at their airports, airlines, tour and transport companies and other service providers.

“Asean members will have to agree to gradually but steadily lift travel restrictions to encourage intra-Asean movement.”

Bengzon said the tourism department was coordinating closely with local government units to explore starting travel bubbles or green corridors for flights from neighbouring countries with improving Covid-19 situations.

“Destinations within the Philippines that register zero cases of the virus will be the ones to form part of the bubble,” he said.

FATA president Tan Kok Liang said intra-Asean travel should start with business, medical and education tourism, and leisure tourism could be added later.

He said this would be made possible with reciprocal agreements, health certificate requirements and other conditions to protect travellers.

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