I can’t think of any other way to describe 2021.
We enter the holiday season confronting similar complex uncertainties as 12 months ago, after shards of light briefly flickered in November.
So, let’s rewind the 21 events that galvanised attentions across this grueling year.
1) India and the Delta Variant
The world watched in horror as India suffered at the hands of Covid-19 as the infection wave peaked at 414,000 daily cases on May 14. The Delta variant — first identified in India — became the world’s most deadly mutation, scything through South East Asia, parts of which had kept the pandemic at bay. Indonesia registered a high of 57,000 cases on July 15 while seven days later, the country and nine fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations surpassed one million cases.
2) Phuket Sandbox
After months of protracted flip-flopping, Thailand reopened the island of Phuket to vaccinated foreign — but not domestic — visitors on July 1. While its Prime Minister greeted the first arrivals, strict entry curbs deterred many prospective visitors from coming to the country. Thailand eventually introduced its quarantine-free Test & Go replacement on November 1, a better system for the end-of-year travel season.
3) 12 More Months Without Chinese Travelers
It’s not just the number of Chinese visitors to individual countries, or the totals of group versus independent travelers. It’s the entire travel eco-system China built across the Asia-Pacific region in the 2010s: airlines, hotels, online travel agencies, business travelers and investors. A regional recovery needs China’s participation, which makes Australian Tourism Minister Dan Tehan’s comments earlier this month that overall strong demand for travel will help mitigate the loss of Chinese visitors seem like political posturing.
4) South Korea Becomes Asia’s Most Vibrant Outbound Market
Vaccinated South Koreans who were exempt from quarantine when upon their return home from overseas travels took off en masse for summer vacations. Popular destinations for the country’s citizens included Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain while travel bubbles opened with Guam and Saipan. Hawaii and Maldives also moved onto the radar for South Korean travelers.
Then came Covid surges caused by the Delta variant and the emergence of the Omicron variant, and the government reimposed a quarantine for South Koreans upon their return home.
5) Trans-Tasman Bubble Briefly Flourishes
Floated between Australia and New Zealand’s two governments in late April 2020, it first took travelers from New Zealand to selected Australian states starting on October 16 of last year. Two-way travel between the two countries resumed on April 19, 2021 but after a brief pause, it was suspended several months later on August 21.
6) Hong Kong-Singapore Air Travel Bubble — Remember That?
Hong Kong and Singapore tried valiantly to float their bilateral bubble. But it was postponed on November 15, 2020, a few days prior to its planned launch. A new version of the bubble was scheduled to launch several months later on May 26. It failed, and that, as they say, was that.
7) Myanmar in Turmoil
Myanmar’s military staged a coup on February 1, unleashing violence, torture and imprisonment while prosecuting former leaders. This is not a travel story, but it is heartbreaking to see and is part of South East Asia’s depressing legacy in 2021.
8) “We Don’t Want Backpackers”
“We will filter tourists that come visit. We don’t want backpackers to come so that Bali remains clean, where the people who come are of quality,” said Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister.
Bali’s reopening to inbound visitors — scheduled for mid-October — has not yet gotten off of the ground. Meanwhile, Luhut had made the statement above one month earlier. He quickly retracted it, but …. well, it’s tricky to unsay something like that.
9) 8 Months of No Travel in Malaysia
Malaysia closed its borders on March 18, 2020 but permitted domestic travel was permitted for the following Christmas and New Year’s Day. However, the country prohibited domestic tourism on January 13 of this year due to a surge in Covid cases. The travel ban remained intact until the Malaysian government launched a travel bubble for vaccinated residents in the Langkawi district on September 16.
10) No Fuss Maldives
Maldives reopened to international travellers on July 15, 2020, after being closed for 110 days due to Covid-19. The country has no bubbles, vaccinated travel lanes or sandboxes. Despite being closed to travelers from India — its number one inbound market — until the middle of 2021, the islands welcomed 715,600 visitors in the first year of its reopening. And in the first 11 months of 2021, Maldives greeted 1,162,425 arrivals — down 24.4 percent from 2019, but up 152.1 percent from last year.
11) The Empty Olympics
Delayed for one year due to the pandemic, the organisers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics banned foreign visitors while most venues were devoid of spectators. Hence, the Games were a product of its time and will be remembered for mask-wearing ceremonies and empty stadiums as much as for the impressive world records set.
12) COP26, Global Heating & Travel
The COP26 circus placed travel and tourism firmly in the sustainability crosshairs. Thus, brands that invested in greenwashing and faux-eco PR are unlikely to get an easy ride. That said, the travel industry has been disrupted beyond comparison, and the focus in 2022 will be on financial recovery. So will the “This is a time to reset our environmental values” talk get to walk — or simply sit down and take a back seat once more?
13) AirAsia’s SuperApp
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021, AirAsia and CEO Tony Fernandes have had their detractors. But South East Asia’s largest low-cost carrier redefined air travel in the region until Covid struck. As a private entity with no government funding, it faced a precipice. Time will tell whether its SuperApp conversion — offering a range of digital services via a single platform — will succeed, but it has started pretty well. Other airlines will attempt to follow in its digital footsteps.
14) Domestic Travel Carries the Burden
Covid has triggered a travel reset, with governments forced to turn to domestic markets, which previously received little finance and marketing support. This continued through 2021, and will remain important in 2022 — which gives me an excuse to return to a piece I wrote on the subject:
“Over the past 16 months, finance ministers have noted that domestic tourism simply cannot fill the void in terms of trip numbers and expenditure — and, therefore, is unlikely to attract much-needed foreign investment to support post-pandemic economic recovery.”
15) Zero Covid Canned … Almost
Zero tolerance approaches to Covid were mostly consigned to the dustbin of history as 2021 progressed. New Zealand is readying to reopen its borders in phases in 2022. Australia — except for largely Covid-free Western Australia — has started to reopen. China and Hong Kong still maintain Zero Tolerance approaches. But for how long?
16) “Not” Living With Covid in Hong Kong
“If Hong Kong were to loosen the border controls… or adopt what other countries have done… to live with the Covid-19 virus, then the chances of resuming travel with the mainland will be reduced,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Lam made that stament in October, when she tightened travel rules to align with China’s hard border policy. The phrase “or adopt what other countries have done … to live with the Covid-19 virus” echoed Beijing’s Zero Tolerance stance as Hong Kong targets quarantine-free travel with the mainland above all else.
17) Vaccinated Travel Lanes
Pandemic-era official messaging in South East Asia — especially Singapore and Malaysia — is littered with acronyms. Standard Operating Procedures is the most ubiquitous, but many others exist. Vaccinated Travel Lanes — quota-capped, quarantine-free air travel corridors — partly define 2021 in Singapore. Its VTL country count stands at 21, with three — the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia & Qatar — currently deferred.
18) China-Laos Railway
Reported globally with a mixture of curiosity and analyses of government debt, the much anticipated China-Laos railway launched on December 3. It forms the first part of China’s pan-ASEAN railway plan to connect South East Asia with the city of Kunming and China’s own high-speed rail network. Running from Boten on the China-Laos border to the Lao capital of Vientiane, the new train offers passengers the chance to view this spectacular country from their window.
19) South East Asia Starts to Reopen
It began in August, and as vaccination rates increased, some countries — most notably, Singapore — began talking of endemicity and Covid resilience. Thereafter, as I wrote earlier this month: “Border reopenings commenced, at varying degrees of scale, in Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia. Cambodia and the Philippines were poised. Laos perhaps.” Several destinations felt cautiously optimism about the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday period.
20) Cambodia Goes All In
Cambodia spotted a window, and emboldened by a highly vaccinated population, it decided to reopen for visitors. Unlike Thailand, whose quarantine-free reopening is restricted to vaccinated travelers from 63 destinations, Cambodia is welcoming visitors from all nations. There are issues though, most notably a lack of inbound flights.
The World Health Organization designated variant B.1.1.529 as “a variant of concern, named Omicron” on November 26.
“(December 8) marked one year since the first administration of a Covid-19 vaccine. We all believed and hoped at the time that a year later, we would be nearing the end of the pandemic,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“Instead, as we enter the third year of the pandemic, the death toll has more than tripled, and the world remains its grip. We have often said that as long as vaccine inequity persists, the more opportunity the virus has to spread and mutate in ways no one can prevent or predict. And so, we have Omicron, which threatens to unravel the gains we have made.”
Gary Bowerman is a business and travel analyst based in Malaysia. He also is the director of Check-in Asia, a tourism and strategic marketing firm. This post first appeared in Asia Travel Re:Set, a website Bowerman runs that covers travel developments in the Asia-Pacific region.