After more than two years of lockdowns and border controls, Southeast Asia is finally experiencing some semblance of the old days of travel.
Flights are steadily returning to 2019 levels in the region's major economies, with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia being the most popular destinations this year, according to the flight data analytics firm Cirium.
In Singapore, which had the most inbound flight bookings in the region this year, bookings rose from around 30% of 2019 levels in January to 48% by mid-June. The Philippines also saw a sharp uptick in bookings, from about 20% at the start of January, to almost 40% by mid-June, according to Cirium.
Tourism is a key moneymaker for Southeast Asia, a region which saw international visitors more than double from 63 million in 2009 to 139 million in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
The industry accounts for around 10% of gross domestic product 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.
The pandemic "was probably more devastating in Southeast Asia than the rest of the world [because] governments kept the borders closed for almost two years," said Gary Bowerman, director of the travel research firm Check-in Asia. "There were even restrictions on domestic travel."
"If you compare that to North America or Europe, for example, in both years 2020 and 2021 … they had some tourism and travel flows," he said.
Changing travel habits
Most countries in Southeast Asia — including Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines — have stopped requiring fully vaccinated travelers to take Covid-19 tests before traveling.
After Singapore dropped its pre-travel testing requirement in April, business has been "picking up fast and furious," said Stanley Foo, founder of the local tour operator Oriental Travel & Tours. He said travelers are booking longer trips and spending more than before too.
Before the pandemic, the company received around 20 tour bookings a week, mostly for tours lasting three to four days. Now, its handling 25 bookings a week, some for trips up to 10 days long. Average expenditures on customized tours rose from around $2,000 per person before the pandemic to $4,000 to $6,000 today, said Foo.
"It's because of the revenge traveling," Foo said. "They have saved up enough for the past two years."
Since tourists are spending more time in Singapore, Foo and his team of tour guides are taking clients to places outside the usual tourist itinerary — to the suburbs to watch residents do tai chi and to order coffee at hawker centers "the Singaporean way," he said.
Joanna Lu of Ascend by Cirium, the company's consultancy arm, said people are spending more time planning their journeys too. They are "making sure they're covered for unexpected changes," she said.
Not your usual tourists
Tourists contacting Foo are from all over the world, especially Southeast Asian countries, he said.
That's in stark contrast to his pre-pandemic business, when Chinese nationals were among his company's biggest client groups, said Foo. China continues to "strictly limit" non-essential travel out of the country.
In 2019, visitors from China made up more than 30% of tourists to some Southeast Asian nations, according to the Asian Development Bank, a fact which makes China's prolonged border closure even more painful for the region.
"The traffic decline in China has deepened in April as strict travel restrictions limit air travel in, to and from the country," said Lu, adding she doesn't expect the situation to change soon.
John Grant, chief analyst at the travel data company OAG, said Asia's travel recovery lags behind other continents' because of its reliance on international visitors, particularly from China, as well as the varying reopening strategies in the region.
Southeast Asia has about 66% of flight capacity — measured by scheduled airline seats — compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to OAG. Europe and North America are back to around 88% and 90% of pre-pandemic capacity respectively, OAG's data showed.
Cloudy skies ahead
Southeast Asia's travel recovery faces other global headwinds too: rising costs and interest rates, inflation and a potential recession.
Jet fuel prices in early June were up 128% from a year ago, according to the International Air Transport Association. Airlines are increasing fares as a result, but "at least to date it does not appear to have impacted demand since people have two years of pent-up demand," said Grant.
But that could quickly change if fuel surcharges coincide with inflation eating into travelers' discretionary spending, he said.
Rising interest rates will likely devalue emerging economies' currencies against the U.S. dollar, making imports more expensive and reducing how much travelers can spend on non-essentials like holidays, said Bowerman.
Despite these forces, travel insiders say most people aren't canceling their plans just yet.
Expedia's Asia head of public relations Lavinia Rajaram said Singapore-based travelers are already planning year-end holidays, while others are booking trips for the quieter months of September and October.
Plus, if airlines get their flight capacity back to pre-Covid levels, air ticket prices may normalize, Rajaram added.
Foo said he expects to see more conventions and exhibitions being held in Singapore in the second half of the year, where companies may engage agencies like his to conduct side tours for business visitors.
Where are the workers?
Even if Southeast Asia continues to attract streams 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 aviation industry had 50% fewer jobs at the end of 2021 compared with pre-Covid times — from 87.7 million to around 43.8 million — according to the global air transport association Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders.
Flight cancelations, delays and crowded airports are frustrating the summer travel season in Europe and North America. Low wages have made working at airports and airlines unattractive, and workers in Europe are striking against low pay and poor working conditions.
The travel chaos in other parts of the world that has yet to hit Southeast Asia is a situation officials in the region hope to avert.
Singapore's Changi Airport Group wants to fill 250 vacancies by year-end, according to the agency. Singapore Airlines has selected more than 800 cabin crew from several thousand applications, which is "three to four times more" than it received in pre-Covid days, the airline said in an email to CNBC.
The Malaysian Aviation Commission told CNBC that local airlines are "actively seeking to recruit," but "demand for air travel remains uncertain as Malaysia progresses into the endemic phase of Covid-19."
But there were signs of cracks. In April, Changi Airport Group had to retime some flights over a four-day long weekend because of a staffing shortage, according to local media reports.
Malaysian media reported that about 1 in 10 domestic flights that flew during the Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebratory period in late April and early May were delayed, partly because of a lack of workers.
Mayur Patel, OAG's regional sales director for Japan and Asia-Pacific, said airlines have been denied additional slots to land or take off 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] China uncertainty, this will be ... tricky," said Patel.