Can Mekong nations welcome vaccinated travellers?

PHNOM PENH, 31 May 2021: The day when vaccinated travellers will be able to visit Mekong Region countries with quarantine came a little closer last week when six Greater Mekong Sub-region countries gave the subject a provisional green light.

It’s still a long way off as the proposal will need the green light by various ministries, including public health in each country. Or as the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office executive director, Jens Thraenhart, noted: “Opening plans (for borders) were discussed, and each country will act based on their own policies. Information will be communicated through the Coronavirus pages at www.Mekongtourism.org.”

Also, to gain foreign traveller confidence, it would require the six countries to deliver a high level of vaccination in their populations, possibly as high as 70%. However, that threshold could still be a year away.

It is highly likely that Thailand’s tourist island Phuket could be the first to welcome vaccinated travellers without the need to undergo 14 days quarantine. The island’s so-called “sandbox” project is set to go 1 July as more than half of the island’s population has now been vaccinated.

First reported in the Phnom Penh Post, the 47th Tourism Working Group meeting of the GMS took place on 27 May. Officials from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam attended the online meeting along with the Asian Development Bank 

A director of Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism attended both the online 47th Mekong Tourism Working Group Meeting and the MTCO Board Meeting.

In addition to supporting quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers, the Tourism Working Group endorsed the “direction of the draft Mekong Tourism Recovery Communications Plan.” Before approving the final plan, the next step requires consultative meetings scheduled in June with MeTAG members (Mekong Tourism Advisory group – private sector advisors from the travel industry).

On the prospects of countries welcoming vaccinated international travellers, travel industry executives would consider themselves extremely lucky if the rollout spurred a recovery in the Mekong Region during 2021. Instead, it is more likely to be a trickle of group tours limited to specific destinations that have a high level of herd immunity due to the rollout of vaccination programmes.

Travel this year to the Mekong Region countries will be off the 2019 pace by around 80 to 85%. However, there is a ray of hope that a speedy vaccine rollout across the Mekong region nations could be enough to trigger the beginning of the recovery in 2022 by ending the 14 to 21-day quarantine regimen. Until then, there will be pockets, bubbles or sandbox projects that will deliver limited success for the remainder of 2021, hampered by repeated Covid-19 outbreaks and waves fueled by new variants of the virus.

During 2020 and the first half of 2021, we witnessed Covid-19 waves caused by variants originating in China, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and India, with the latest variant surfacing in Vietnam this week. This constant ebb and flow of Covid-19 waves suggest that vaccination programmes represent the single most feasible route to recovery.

(Source: Phnom Penh Post, MTCO)