After more than two years of closures and border controls, Southeast Asia is finally seeing some semblance of its old days of travel.

Flights are steadily returning to 2019 levels in the region’s major economies, with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia the most popular destinations this year, according to flight data analytics firm Cirium.

In Singapore, which has recorded the largest number of inbound flight bookings in the region this year, bookings rose from about 30% of 2019 levels in January to 48% by mid-June. The Philippines also saw a sharp rise in bookings, from about 20% at the beginning of January, to nearly 40% by mid-June, according to Cerium.

Tourism is a major earner for Southeast Asia, a region that more than doubled from 63 million in 2009 to 139 million in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Industry accounts for about 10% of GDP in Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia and between 20% and 25%% of GDP in Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, according to a May 2022 report published by the Asian Development Bank.

Cirium chart on the absolute number of airline seats booked in 2022 in Southeast Asia and Nepal.

The pandemic may have been ‘more devastating in Southeast Asia than the rest of the world’ [because] Gary Bowerman, director of travel research firm Check-in Asia, said governments have kept borders closed for nearly two years, and there have even been restrictions on domestic travel.

“If you compare that to North America or Europe, for example, in 2020 and 2021… they had some tourism and travel flows,” he said.

Change your travel habits

Most countries in Southeast Asia – including Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines – have stopped requiring fully vaccinated travelers to get tested for Covid-19 before travelling.

Stanley Fu, founder of local tour operator Oriental Travel and Tours, said after Singapore dropped pre-travel testing requirements in April, business was “rebounding fast and furiously”. He said travelers are booking longer flights and spending more than before, too.

Before the pandemic, the company received about 20 reservations a week, mostly for tours lasting three to four days. Now, it handles 25 reservations a week, some for trips of up to 10 days. Fu said average spending on custom tours has risen from about $2,000 per person before the pandemic to $4,000 to $6,000 today.

“This is because of revenge travel,” Fu said. “They’ve saved enough over the past two years.”

As tourists spend more time in Singapore, Fu and his team of tour guides are taking customers to places off the usual tourist itinerary — to the suburbs to watch residents practice tai chi and order coffee at hawker centers the “Singapore way,” he said.

People are spending more time planning their trips, too, said Joanna Lo of Ascend by Cirium, the consulting arm of the company. She said they “make sure they cover unexpected changes”.

Not the usual tourists

He said the tourists who call Foo are from all over the world, especially Southeast Asian countries.

Fu said this is in stark contrast to his work in the pre-pandemic period, when Chinese nationals were among his company’s largest client groups. China continues to “strictly restrict” non-essential travel outside the country.

With China largely shut down, Southeast Asian tour operators will target Japanese and South Korean tourists, especially Indians, to make up for the shortfall in Chinese visitors, said Gary Bowerman of Check In Asia.

Sajjad Hussain | Afp | Getty Images

In 2019, visitors from China made up more than 30% of tourists to some Southeast Asian countries, according to the Asian Development Bank, a fact that makes China’s prolonged border closing even more painful for the region.

“The drop in traffic in China deepened in April as strict travel restrictions restricted air travel to and from the country,” Lu said, adding that she did not expect the situation to change soon.

Jon Grant, chief analyst at travel data firm OAG, said the travel recovery in Asia is lagging that of other continents due to its reliance on international visitors, particularly from China, as well as the region’s diverse reopening strategies.

Southeast Asia has about 66% more flight capacity – measured in airlines’ scheduled seats – compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to the OAG. OAG data showed that Europe and North America were back to about 88% and 90% of pre-pandemic capacity, respectively.

cloudy sky

Southeast Asia’s travel recovery is also facing other global headwinds: rising costs, interest rates, inflation and a possible recession.

Jet fuel prices in early June were up 128% from a year ago, according to the International Air Transport Association. The airlines are increasing fares as a result, Grant said, but “at least so far it doesn’t seem to have affected demand because people have two years of pent-up demand.”

But he said that could change quickly if the fuel surcharges coincide with the impact of inflation on the discretionary spending of travelers.

Higher interest rates are likely to devalue emerging economies’ currencies against the US dollar, making imports more expensive and reducing the amount travelers can spend on non-essential things such as vacations, Bowerman said.

Despite these forces, the travel industry says most people haven’t canceled their plans yet.

Expedia’s head of PR for Asia, Lavinia Rajaram, said travelers based in Singapore are already planning their year-end vacation, while others are booking trips for the quieter months of September and October.

Additionally, if airlines restore their flight capacity to pre-Covid levels, airfares may return to normal, Rajaram added.

Fu said he expects to see more conferences and exhibitions taking place in Singapore in the second half of the year, when companies can engage agencies like his for side tours for business visitors.

Where are the workers?

Even if Southeast Asia continues to attract influxes of tourists, air carriers may have to turn them away if they cannot find enough workers to service their flights.

Many workers in the air travel industry left or were laid off during the first two years of the pandemic. The airline industry had 50% fewer jobs at the end of 2021 than in pre-Covid times — from 87.7 million to about 43.8 million — according to the IATA Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders.

Flight cancellations, delays and airport congestion are frustrating the summer travel season in Europe and North America. Low wages made working in airports and airlines unattractive, and workers in Europe were striking against low wages and poor working conditions.

Travel chaos in other parts of the world that has yet to hit Southeast Asia is a situation officials in the region hope to avoid.

Singapore’s Changi Airport Group wants to fill 250 vacancies by the end of the year, according to the agency. Singapore Airlines said in an email to CNBC that Singapore Airlines has selected more than 800 cabin crew from among several thousand requests, which is “three to four times more” than it received in the pre-Covid days.

The Malaysian Aviation Commission told CNBC that domestic airlines are “actively seeking employment”, but that “demand for air travel remains uncertain as Malaysia progresses in the endemic phase of Covid-19.”

In a statement in May 2022, Singapore Airlines said average passenger capacity was around 61% of pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter, and it expects to rise to 67% in the second quarter of 2022.

Raslan Rahman | Afp | Getty Images

But there were signs of cracks. In April, Changi Airport Group was forced to postpone some flights over a four-day long weekend due to staff shortages, according to local media reports.

Malaysian media reported that about 1 in 10 domestic flights flying during the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebration period in late April and early May were delayed, in part due to a shortage of workers.

Mayur Patel, OAG’s regional sales director for Japan and Asia Pacific, said airlines were being denied additional landing or take-off opportunities because airports did not have enough manpower to accommodate the extra flights.

“I think the plan is to get back to pre-Covid levels but with [the] “Uncertainty in China, this would be … deceptive,” Patel said.