Complications abound for travelers
Before the pandemic, Southeast Asia was one of the fastest-growing regions in the world for international tourism, with a record 139 million visitors in 2019, a jump of about 8 percent compared to 2018, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. The emerald waters of Halong Bay in Vietnam were crowded with hundreds of cruise boats, rooftops bars in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia teemed with partyers and walking on streets on Thai islands like Phuket meant enduring shoulder-to-shoulder crowds. Tourist attractions across the region were congested with package tours from China, the world’s biggest source of outbound tourism for the past decade. According to the U.N.W.T.O., about 150 million Chinese travelers spent $277 billion in 2018 alone.
Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Cambodia were among favorite destinations of Chinese tourists. But as the coronavirus outbreak in China morphed into a global pandemic in early 2020, locations in the region that depended on foreign visitors were deserted. Last year, foreign arrivals to Southeast Asia plummeted to 3.3 million, or around 2 percent of the record number in 2019.
This year, with the incremental revival of international tourism, visitors will encounter a raft of constraints as well as rewards, according to tourists and travel companies in the region.
Mr. Lamberty and Ms. Laird vacationed in Phuket 16 times before the pandemic. They were usually out and about on the island — fabled for its tropical beaches, fiery cuisine, hedonistic nightlife — and enjoyed visiting temples and taking Thai cooking classes. This time, they took it easy, visiting friends and relaxing at their go-to beachfront hotel, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket on the Andaman Sea. They were sad to see that boutiques had closed in a nearby shopping center, now a Covid testing site.
“You have a memory of what’s happened before and what was here, but everybody has to compromise,” Ms. Laird said. “Be brave about travel and go for it; the prize is just being here.”
Travelers going after that prize should be prepared to endure virus tests and even quarantines, and purchase health and travel insurance before their arrival. Other suggestions: Be ready to download government travel apps, upload vaccination and travel documents, and acknowledge that a positive virus test result could send you into a quarantine or cause a missed flight. Don’t be surprised if service at hotels, restaurants and tour companies is spotty or if they are short staffed — or if the government rules change suddenly while you’re on holiday.