Teamwork in ASEAN could beat Covid-19

CHIANG RAI, 1 July 2020: I often wonder when will ASEAN nations speak with a single voice to resolve a regional crisis that requires a single-minded commitment and teamwork?

Like the European Union, ASEAN’s 10-member countries* dropped their muskets on presenting a common battle line against the advance of Covid-19 in recent months.

The EU’s borderless travel concept collapsed as member countries looked after themselves throwing out of the window the cardinal concept of EU unity. They will salvage the travel mess this Wednesday when they reintroduce simplified and consistent measures to revive tourism between EU member countries.

But not even a peep from ASEAN leaders on pursuing a level of consistency and possibly introducing measures that would revive travel within the region.

Well, there was one small warble from Cambodia’s outspoken Prime Minister Hun Sen who told the ASEAN Virtual Summit last week that ASEAN should be strategically prepared for the post-Covid-19 world and ready to open borders between member countries.

“To achieve this goal, ASEAN should establish a clear and prudent rehabilitation plan by introducing scenarios for gradually launching of cross-border travel and trade between countries and rehabilitating sectors that are most affected by the crisis.”

Following on from his remarks at the virtual summit organised by Malaysia, Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page: “ASEAN has a new opportunity to strengthen its regional supply chain. This is a necessary task ahead as I see the regional supply chain linkage will enable ASEAN to realise its potential as the 10 countries have different advantages.”

He hit the proverbial nail on the head. ASEAN nations need to urgently introduce clarity by adopting similar measures across the region to end the web of confusion that stymies airlines and travellers. They need to sing off the same hymn sheet, simplify measures and create a zone where travel is relatively safe.

It is not an easy task to reach a regional consensus as the EU so painfully discovered. Everyone rushed to slam the border gates first and halt the spread of the virus at the expense of regional unity. But if it is true that we can fight a threat better together than when we are alone, ASEAN leaders should seek common ground and create consistent measures to revive travel within the ASEAN region.

Currently, the travel industry in ASEAN must survive on domestic tourism which, despite the positive spin, fails to deliver anything close to the volume generated from within the region.

The Cambodian PM made the point: “So far, we have seen that ASEAN is very focused on overseas markets, but it has forgotten about the 600 million people in its region.

“By the time of the crisis, our dependence on exports was too high, and it affected our economies… the most impacted sector in ASEAN is tourism which needs attention as economies in Southeast Asia are dependent on it.”

Talk of travel bubbles focuses on Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, but not a single leisure travel corridor of note has emerged so far.

The logical sequence in rebooting tourism begins with domestic tourism out of necessity, but by the same token, we need to progress and deliver travel to and from ASEAN neighbours. While the volume of domestic travel is arguably higher in Thailand,  there is little difference between the revenue earned from domestic travellers and those from Laos and Cambodia. But residents from the two countries have a lower Covid-19 risk rating than domestic travellers from Bangkok.

 If a Bangkok resident can travel to Chiang Rai a distance of almost 900 km surely residents of Laos and Myanmar resident in bordering provinces could safely travel a few km to cross the border for trade and tourism. Border provinces have been Covid-19 free for months; therefore, two-way tourism with neighbours could be an option to reboot economies. 

At some point, we have to take the travel bubble concept to our ASEAN neighbours, starting with the low-risk nations. Vietnam with just 355 reported cases, no fatalities and a clean bill of health for months on end should be a priority. Open travel corridors to encourage travel from Vietnam to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and work on streamlining measures to open travel within ASEAN for its citizens. It helps if we all sing off the same hymn sheet.

(*ASEAN: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam)