Mekong travel bubble may help the region to reopen to tourists

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The Lane Xang high-speed train passes through a tunnel on the China-Laos border. The new rail link may help to increase tourist travel around the Mekong region. Xinhua

Plans to reopen Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar to tourists, along with a new China-Laos high speed rail link are reviving talk of a Mekong travel bubble.

Thailand has already welcomed foreigners to sandbox islands such as Phuket and Koh Samui and will open the country to fully vaccinated visitors from at least 10 nations next month. It may find that initial demand is not as great as hoped for.

“Domestic tourism reached its peak last November, thanks to low infection rates and an improving travel mood driven by many marketing campaigns and government stimulus schemes, but this year might not see such volume again,” Wutthiphum Jurangkool, chief executive of local low-cost airline Nok Air, told the Bangkok Post.

Vietnam plans to open the island of Phu Quoc to foreigners next month even as national daily infection rates remain above 3,400. The country ended a three-month lockdown of its largest city, Ho Chi Minh, at the start of this month but Vietnam has been closed to most foreigners since March last year.

Even Myanmar, which has been under military rule since February, is hoping to attract tourists.  A ban on travel between provinces has been lifted and Bloomberg reports that Hotels and Tourism Minister Htay Aung wants to allow as many as 300,000 foreign tourists to enter the country in the first quarter of next year.

Myanmar wants to create travel bubbles with Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam although commercial flights are still banned. In the past tourists largely boycotted Myanmar over the house arrest of National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was rearrested following the Feb 1 coup.

Cambodia started issuing e-visas for tourists on Tuesday but they will still face at least seven days quarantine at a cost of $1,000 when they arrive. The Kingdom is better placed than its neighbours to welcome visitors because the national immunisation campaign has reached 80 percent of the population, with nearly 100 percent of people in Phnom Penh fully vaccinated.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia has done a good job in vaccinating its population,” said Outgoing Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO) Jens Thraenhart, who advises regional tourism ministries. “Now it is critical to create trust and confidence in international travellers to feel safe when visiting its destinations. Visiting Cambodia early, as borders start to open, is very unique as it provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the temples and other sites without the crowds.”

Thraenhart is also the founder of Destination Mekong, a private sector-led regional tourism board. He says the group, along with the MTCO, will be critical in helping to restart tourism in the region.

“Governments have invested over decades and now is the time to reap the benefits. China is part of the Greater Mekong Subregion and is the most important source market for the member countries,” he said.

A new high-speed passenger rail link between China and Laos may provide a further incentive for Chinese travellers to tour the Mekong region.

The first train from Kunming to Vientiane arrived on Oct 16 and a full service is expected to start on Dec 2, which is Lao National Day.

“The high speed rail link between China and Southeast Asia will be critical in restarting tourism in the Mekong region,” Thraenhart said. “Chinese consumers have shifted towards train travel due to the excellent network in their own country and it has opened new rural destinations consistent with new domestic travel preferences… These efforts are supported by the Chinese government and, as such, will be embraced by the Chinese public for the most part. It is also important to note that with climate change being an existential threat and consumers becoming more conscious about its impacts, train travel will see a new Renaissance of responsible travel behaviour, and that will further fuel post pandemic travel,” he added.

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, which still faces Covid restrictions. Those travel curbs, along with rising Covid cases in Vientiane, may mean few travellers in the near term.

Read the full article at Khmer Times:

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