ASEAN tourism leaders have officially announced the reopening of the regional sector and introduced a number of key principles to be implemented, even as some member states grapple with outbreaks of the coronavirus Omicron variant.

The announcement was jointly made by ASEAN secretary-general Lim Jock Hoi, the bloc’s tourism ministers and other leaders on the evening of January 19 in Preah Sihanouk province.

The Cambodian tourism ministry said in a statement on January 20 that the reopening is in line with the vision of ASEAN socio-economic recovery, based on a handful of principles, such as the commencement of intra-ASEAN tourism, the materialisation of an ASEAN travel portal and creation of a digital health pass.

Others include the recognition of the Covid-19 vaccine as the key to achieving community immunity, towards the revitalisation of the tourism industry chain, and encouraging life in a “new normal” in accordance with the health rules and standard operating procedures (SOP) of each member country.

Still others are the assurance that tourism services and businesses operate in accordance with ASEAN principles on hygiene and safety for tourism professionals and communities, and the enhancement of trust and confidence by encouraging all tour operators and similar service providers in the bloc, according to the ministry.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 40th ASEAN Tourism Forum (ATF 2022) on January 18, Minister of Tourism Thong Khon noted that Covid has had a serious impact on the socio-economic situation over the past two years, 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,” he said.

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 added.

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

Speaking at the ceremony, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the gradual resumption of the full range of socio-economic activities is under pressure, and must be in line with the “new normal” for all ASEAN countries, due to the narrowing of the tourism market, along with increased competition in terms of quality.

“Affordable products and services, prices, confidence in the safety of tourist destinations, measures to control the spread of Covid-19 and travel facilitation – these points will be key factors in tourists’ decisions when choosing destinations in the new context,” he said.

Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) Cambodia chapter chairman Thourn Sinan welcomed the decision to reopen ASEAN tourism.

“I am very pleased with the ASEAN leaders’ announcement to reopen tourism, which is what the private sector wants and has been looking forward to.

“This ATF forum was a very important achievement for Cambodia, reflecting that the Kingdom is a safe country for the world’s tourists to travel to. If ASEAN can implement [these new principles], the flow of tourists from one country to another will increase, which will not only help restore tourism in the region, but also boost economic growth,” he said.

Hun Sen pointed out that first-dose and booster vaccination rates in Cambodia had risen to around 89 per cent and 25 per cent of the estimated 16 million population by January 10, which he said has allowed for a broad economic resumption to begin on November 1.

Additionally, the Kingdom managed to kick off an international tourism relaunch scheme on November 14 that opened the doors to fully-jabbed travellers, he said.

The government has also launched “The Strategic Framework and Programmes for Economic Recovery in the Context of Living with Covid-19 in a New Normal 2021-2023” and other supporting instruments on the “new normal”, domestic tourism and vaccines, he noted.