Yearstarter 2023: Travel - A whirlwind year for tourism as borders reopen


Two tourists from Belgium at the Malaysia Tourism Centre. What a year it has been for the global travel industry – Malaysia and other Asian countries welcomed back tourists, while Europe had a torrid summer travel season. - AZLINA ABDULLAH/ The Star

What a year it has been for the global travel industry. While analysts and industry experts had earlier predicted a return to pre-pandemic days by at least 60% for many markets, only a handful have managed to achieve that.

Price points

Labour shortage was rampant particularly in the hospitality sector, causing many hotels and accommodations to hold off on opening their properties to full capacity. Some of those that did fully operate, received plenty of complaints from guests ranging from sub-par service and long waits during check-ins/check-outs, to unclean rooms.

The never-ending increase of the price of fuel, meanwhile, pushed the price of airfare even higher, more so towards the third quarter of the year. By the time the year-end holiday season rolls by, flight tickets popular destinations (mostly winter spots) had increased by 100%.

Everyone wanted to travel, but not everyone could, not even domestically. Tickets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, for example, had increased by at least RM700 during the Christmas and New Year weekends.

MYAirline is Malaysia's latest low-cost airline. — BernamaMYAirline is Malaysia's latest low-cost airline. — Bernama

However, those who managed to snag tickets from the new local low-cost airline, MYAirline, would have been able to fly for cheap. That is, if they had bought their seats when the airline opened ticket sales on Nov 26; one-way tickets were sold for as low as RM49 back then! Flights from KL to KK, Kuching (Sarawak) and Langkawi (Kedah) began on Dec 1, while flights from KL to Kota Baru (Kelantan), Sibu (Sarawak) and Penang began on Dec 6.

Hopefully, MYAirline, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia would be able to add more flight frequencies soon, especially to domestic destinations.

Summertime sadness

In Europe, the summer travel season kicked off badly, and at times got even worse as the weeks progressed. Worker strikes and staff shortages forced many European airlines to cancel thousands of flights, just to avoid overcrowding and extra long queues at major airports.

And it seems the problem persisted even over the Christmas weekend.

That said, the demand for travel actually went up, based on the number of hotel bookings worldwide. A handful of independent surveys done by online travel agencies and booking platforms show that hotel bookings for this year have been encouraging, with the trend continuing into the first quarter of 2023.

A file photo of the crowd at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2 in London, in June. Long queues, delays and rescheduled flights were rampant during the European summer holiday season. — ReutersA file photo of the crowd at Heathrow Airport's Terminal 2 in London, in June. Long queues, delays and rescheduled flights were rampant during the European summer holiday season. — Reuters

Although this is really good news for every sector in the tourism industry, many of 2022's issues will still be around this year. Experts predict that a full recovery and a return to pre-pandemic days for the industry may only be possible in 2024, with some even saying 2026.

Fortunately, most holidaymakers are unperturbed by these challenges, accepting them as the new normals of travel. After all, Covid-19 has taught us how to quickly adapt to new ways of life.

Adapt and go

Something else that travellers have had to learn to adapt to in 2022 is the constant change in travel regulations and entry requirements. Most countries around the word opened their borders to international tourists at the start of the second quarter of 2022. However, each country had its own new set of rules and regulations for entry.

For example, Malaysia opened up her borders for leisure tourism on April 1, with some testing and quarantine requirements which, in hindsight, were actually pretty straightforward compared to what others countries had implemented.

Since the Malaysia-Singapore borders reopened on April 1, 2022, tourists from the island republic have been visiting Johor Baru to dine, shop andvisit entertainment spots. — THOMAS YONG/The StarSince the Malaysia-Singapore borders reopened on April 1, 2022, tourists from the island republic have been visiting Johor Baru to dine, shop andvisit entertainment spots. — THOMAS YONG/The Star

South Korea, which also opened its borders on April 1, had such a confusing set of rules that included applying for the K-ETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorisation).

Singapore, too, opened at the same time as Malaysia, and just like South Korea, also required tourists to fill in the SG Arrival Card online. (In fact, you still need to do this now.)

On Aug 1, Malaysia scrapped all entry requirements – including quarantine – for international travellers. This was a a good move as the country almost immediately saw the arrival of a steady stream of tourists, as well as the return of travellers whose holidays in Malaysia were cut short during the early days of the pandemic.

Asia's Big Three

In South-East Asia, Thailand, which opened it borders in July, seems to be the biggest winner when it comes to tourism in 2022, as the country reportedly hit its target of 10 million arrivals in early December. The healthy recovery was perhaps spurred on by the country's decision to decriminalise cannabis on June 9.

Or maybe people just really missed Thai food, Bangkok shopping and the friendly locals, we can't really confirm.

Still, experts are saying that the country that will see exponential growth in tourism from 2023 is Japan. On Oct 11, the Japan government finally allowed visa-free entry into the country, with minimal to no Covid-19 testing requirements (this will depend on how many vaccine shots you have had – three is the magic number). There are still certain conditions that must be met though, especially in regards to vaccine certification and testing methods.

Tourists seen walking in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand. The country welcomed more than 4.6 million tourists for the first eight months of the year. - BernamaTourists seen walking in front of the Grand Palace in Bangkok Thailand. The country welcomed more than 4.6 million tourists for the first eight months of the year. - Bernama

Incidentally, Taiwan also reopened at the same time as Japan, but its arrival numbers are going up slowly. Hong Kong opened its borders much earlier, but implemented such strict rules that included long quarantines in hotels, which put off international tourists. The entry requirements have slightly eased, and the island is now looking at removing all restrictions within the first quarter of 2023.

China recently announced that it will ease its overseas travel restrictions from Jan 8, which could mean a return of Chinese tourists to the world's major tourist destinations. Many destinations and markets have long been waiting for the arrival of China tourists, most of whom are considered the big spenders in travel – Malaysia is already expecting about a million tourists from China in 2023.

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