The plan to restore ASEAN tourism after the Covid-19 crisis will be a key strategy for the gradual reopening of international tourism, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in Preah Sihanouk province on January 18.

The premier was speaking at the opening ceremony of the 40th ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF 2022), which bears the theme “ASEAN – A Community of Peace and Shared Future”.

The Covid-19 crisis has slowed down growth in the travel industry, which requires tourism leaders in the private sector, the state and the international community to reconsider development policies and appropriate business models, as well as human capital development plans for the tourism sector in the context of living with Covid-19 in the “new normal”, he said.

Over the past two years, each country has taken specific measures and actions to control Covid-19 outbreaks according to the needs of the situation, he said, citing border restrictions for different modes of travel as primary examples.

“A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with the Indonesian foreign minister, and yesterday [January 17] I discussed with the secretary-general of ASEAN the continuation of efforts in 2022, on the prevention of Covid-19 on one hand, and on the other hand, to open corridors in our ASEAN region.

“This is a way to reconnect people in the framework of tourism, business and trade between countries – in the ASEAN region as well,” Hun Sen said.

Speaking at the ceremony, Minister of Tourism Thong Khon said that prior to Covid, ASEAN tourism was growing at an annual rate of around six per cent by 2019, while providing about 30 million direct jobs and contributing about 10 per cent to the region’s gross domestic product (GDP).

He said intra-ASEAN travel accounted for more than 40 per cent of total international arrivals in the bloc.

This growth, combined with existing support mechanisms, leads ASEAN countries to expect the fulfilment of their 2025 visions, in line with the ASEAN Tourism Development Strategic Plan 2016-2025, he said.

“Unfortunately, in the past two years, the Covid-19 crisis has had a serious impact on the socio-economic situation, especially in 2020, ASEAN as a whole received only 25.96 million international tourists, down by 80 per cent, and tourism revenue fell by 75.8 per cent. This downward trend continued through 2021,” Khon added.

At the opening of the ATF 2022 International Exhibition on January 19, Cambodia Association of Travel Agents (Cata) president Chhay Sivlin noted that the Kingdom boasts a top first-dose vaccination rate in ASEAN, which she described as a demonstration to the world that the country is ready to control the spread of Covid-19 despite the emergence of the Omicron variant.

She said the very existence of ATF 2022 shows the world that Cambodia is a safe destination that will attract foreign travellers, as domestic tourism records significant growth after the government decided to “reopen the country” in early November.

“The private sector must be involved with the government, especially in the vaccination campaign, business reorganisation and re-linking with foreign partners. It must advertise to spur tourism to grow faster,” Sivlin said.

Non-profit tourism association ASEAN Tourism Association (ASEANTA) underscored that Covid slammed the bloc’s travel and tourism sector over 2020-2021.

“In 2021, Southeast Asia was acknowledged as the region with the most travel restrictions in the world by UNWTO [World Tourism Organisation] Tourism Recovery Tracker,” ASEANTA said in a statement on January 19.

“Towards the end of 2021, a number of ASEAN countries prepared to reopen their international borders through different mechanisms reducing entry requirements to allow short visits by tourists to their countries.

“Due to Omicron many of these initiatives were backtracked and more restrictions were imposed with the exception of Cambodia as shown by the organising of the ASEAN Tourism Forum 2022 in hybrid format,” is added.

ASEANTA president Eddy Krismeidi extended his appreciation to the Cambodian tourism ministry for organising the forum in hybrid format despite ongoing Omicron jitters around the world.

He echoed Hun Sen’s statement, “encouraging ASEAN borders to reopen via the establishment of corridors with reduced requirements through utilisation and expansion of the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement endorsed by the ASEAN Leaders to include leisure travel as well”.

ASEANTA said it organised its board meeting in hybrid format to support Cambodia’s organisation of the ATF 2022, noting that the meeting was hosted by Cata in Sihanoukville.

“The meeting discussed a number of key initiatives in supporting tourism recovery within the region including calls for more coordinated border reopenings in ASEAN and interoperability of digital health applications.

“To support and help fast-track tourism recovery efforts, ASEANTA is undertaking joint promotions of the region through the organising of the ASEANTA Travel Exchange [ATEX] digital platform.

“The ATEX will feature both a B2B [business-to-business] exhibitions and business matching component as well as a B2C [business-to-consumer] marketplace that will allow consumers to instantly book trips and tours directly with industry stakeholders throughout ASEAN.

“In addition, the ATEX platform will also feature an AI- [artificial intelligence] driven search tool and will act as a central reference for travellers travelling to ASEAN.

“The platform will be launched in stages starting late [in the first quarter] with the release of a regularly updated, consolidated Covid-19 Information guide.

“ASEANTA will work together with its members which include travel agencies, hotels, airlines and National Tourism Organisations to actively promote ASEAN as a safe and viable destination for travellers worldwide,” it said.