If there’s anyone who can succinctly capture the current mood and frustration of travellers curtailed by the pandemic, it’s Daniel Fraser, Co-Founder and CEO of Smiling Albino, a Bangkok-based travel company specialising in high-end, customised trips in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Nepal. “The pent-up demand to get out and explore the world again has led to the release of pent-up romance,” says Daniel. “We are seeing a trend for older couples travelling to celebrate early or late anniversaries, and the recently wed getting to take long overdue honeymoons. Interestingly, we’ve also had an increase in multigenerational travel; three generations of the same family travelling together.” Daniel believes this is due to the fact that many were unable to see each other for so long. “It’s clear that people have come to value the time they get to spend together – something we once took for granted.”
And people are not holding back. Holidays that Smiling Albino has recently curated for its well-heeled clients include flying by helicopter to Thailand’s less-explored northeast, where they experience local community activities and ceremonies, handicrafts, and regional foods. They have also organised Chef’s Table private dining events in dramatic locations, choreographed flamboyant themed parties on trains, and an epic private jet-skiing tour on the Mekong River between Thailand and Laos with support of Thai Marine Police.
A voyage of rediscovery
Over the past several months, we’ve heard the phrase ‘new normal’ ad nauseum, but according to Daniel, people are craving ‘normal’. That which makes us human – the need to communicate, connect, share, and learn from one another.
“Life without the freedom to travel has made people thirst for what makes it so pleasurable; seeking out the unfamiliar, being exposed to local traditions, and returning home enriched by the experience. It’s become less about landmarks, if at all, and more about meaningful interaction and fun activities,” he asserts. “People have come to the stark realisation that our lives can be altered dramatically, and against our will, at any moment. As a result, they are prepared to spend more to do something special. As a bespoke travel company emerging from what has been a very challenging two years, this is an exciting time for Smiling Albino.”
The GOAT mindset
Singapore-based Lavinia Rajaram, Asia Head of Public Relations for the Expedia Group, is equally upbeat. “Since the last quarter of 2021, demand for international travel has surged across the Asia-Pacific region. At Expedia, we have looked closely at where travellers in the region are going. Our research data shows that travel demand has been influenced by the introduction of Vaccinated Travel Lanes (VTLs) in Singapore,” she says. According to Lavinia, the notable exception is Japan, one of the most popular destinations in the region. “Despite strict border controls, travellers continue to express eagerness and interest in travel to Japan, as seen in the list of top-searched travel destinations for travel in Q2 2022, based on Expedia flight search data,” she adds. The data also reveals that the top-10 destinations that travellers from Singapore are searching for are the Maldives, London, Seoul, Paris, New York, Bangkok, Melbourne, Phuket, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur.
Many bookings made in Q4 2021 for travel this year are for groups of four or more. There is also a good balance of couple or single leisure traveller bookings, and we are now seeing longer length of stays between six to 10 days
Lavinia told ITIJ that Expedia’s 2021 Travel Trends Report found that 52 per cent of Singaporeans had used the pandemic as an opportunity to explore their own country. As one might expect, the first travellers to cross international borders were those who needed to do so for business. However, recently the demographic has expanded. “Many bookings made in Q4 2021 for travel this year are for groups of four or more. There is also a good balance of couple or single leisure traveller bookings, and we are now seeing longer length of stays between six to 10 days, with beach and city destinations being popular.”
Turning to emerging trends for 2022/23, Lavinia said it was clear that the priorities of travellers have changed: “Close to three-quarters (73 per cent) of Singaporeans plan to go big on their next trip with a new ‘no regrets’ style of travel, that we’ve dubbed the GOAT mindset, or Greatest of All Trips.”
The top characteristics of a GOAT traveller from Singapore concurs with what Daniel Fraser of Smiling Albino is experiencing in Thailand. “They plan to be more present and live in the moment, immerse themselves in culture, splurge on experiences and seek out adventure,” she said.
Beyond the GOAT mindset, Expedia’s report also unveiled five core trends that will shape post-pandemic travel for Singaporeans. These include:
- Scrapping the schedule: many Singapore respondents said they were keen to be more spontaneous, preferring to go-with-the-flow and even forgo an itinerary altogether
- The splurge-cation: this year, more than 43 per cent of Singapore travellers said they are more willing to prioritise their enjoyment and experiences over budget, whether that be the ultimate shopping spree, dining at a Michelin-star restaurant, booking a first-class flight or a five-star hotel
- Immerse to discover: 26 per cent said they were more willing than ever to step out of their comfort zone and immerse themselves in destinations, cultures and experiences that are completely different from their own
- Sensation seeking: 38 per cent said they wanted to feel excitement and exhilaration by engaging in high-adrenaline activities such as skydiving, trekking on a volcano or sleeping under the stars
- Unfiltered enjoyment: 41 per cent said they are searching for a sense of contentment and mental wellbeing, with one in five saying they would spend less time on their devices in order to be more present in the moment.
According to Lavinia, Expedia’s research had shown the emphasis for travel in 2022 and 2023 is on quality, not quantity: “It’s about embracing life’s simple pleasures to achieve meaningful impact.”
The need for insurance is real
However keen they are for new experiences, GOAT mindset travellers cannot entirely throw caution to the wind. Travelling without insurance in Southeast Asia is no longer an option, as Lavinia explained: “Many destinations now require inbound travellers to have adequate insurance coverage. Expedia recently introduced new upgrades to our insurance offering to ensure critical aspects like trip cancellation and Covid-19-related hospitalisation are covered. Our intent is to be a helpful travel companion that removes any form of stress from planning and provides the tools and services they need.”
Another Singapore-focused survey, this time by leading general insurer MSIG, reported that 82 per cent of respondents said they will purchase travel insurance for their vacation. Twenty-one per cent of respondents said that Covid-19 was the reason for purchasing travel insurance, while 19 per cent said it was for emergency medical coverage, and 16 per cent for trip cancellation. Pricing was still a deciding factor when it came to selecting a plan. However, an attractive price plan and ease of online claims, particularly for travellers aged 35 to 44 years old who are married with young children, was deemed as important as Covid-19 coverage. The survey also revealed that younger Gen Z travellers (aged 18 to 24) were looking for personalised plans due to the risk of cancelled flights and accommodation.
Thailand bounces back from the brink
For more than two decades, Thailand has been one of the most popular travel destinations, ranking eighth globally for international tourist arrivals with a massive 40 million visitors recorded in 2019. Enter Covid-19, and arrivals plummeted 95 per cent by 2021. Understandably, the government and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) are keen to lure holidaymakers back. Various schemes introduced last year, such as the Phuket Sandbox programme that allowed foreign travellers to visit the island without quarantine after a negative PCR test and no quarantine, met with limited success. However, with restrictions and testing removed entirely for vaccinated travellers on 1 May 2022, holidaymakers are already returning.
Betsie Barr, Trader Manager for the TAT, told ITIJ that Thailand’s well-known destinations are proving just as popular as before: “Phuket, Khao Lak, Koh Samui, Krabi, Bangkok and the east coast are the current hotspots for returning travellers. Tour operators are reporting that customers are spending longer in destination and upgrading their packages to make the most of missed holidays during lockdown,” she said.
multi-generational trips are popular, as are luxury villa holidays
According to Barr, the age demographic is a mix, but ‘vacation deprived’ younger people aged 18 to 34 have been keen to travel sooner. That said, she also noted that multi-generational trips are popular, as are luxury villa holidays. Regarding insurance, Betsie said it was a requirement for all travellers to Thailand to have a minimum of US$10,000 insurance per person (recently reduced from US$20,000). Thailand has seen the disruption of its travel industry as a chance to rebrand and attract more affluent tourists, retirees, and skilled professionals that can work from Thailand. Currently, this marketing strategy is focused on China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and US, but there are plans to expand to Europe by the end of this year.
Local carrier Nok Air survived the downturn thanks to domestic travel initiatives such as Rao Tiow Duay Gan (we travel together), which offered air fare and hotel discounts for Thai citizens. In 2021, it flew 1.5 million domestic passengers and is now ready to open new routes and airports within Thailand. Nok Air’s plans to add international routes to Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Osaka in Japan, and New Delhi, Hyderabad and Varanasi in India that were shelved due to the pandemic are being revived.
Laos drops all Covid restrictions
While Thailand is pushing ahead with plans to open fully by June, neighbouring Laos recently took everyone by surprise when it announced the complete removal of Covid-19 travel restrictions on 9 May 2022. Laurent Granier, Director and Co-Founder of Laos Mood, a local agency based in the country’s capital, Vientiane, which specialises in customised itineraries for independent travellers, couples, families, and small groups of friends, was thrilled to hear the news.
“The last two years have been a real disaster for tourism in Laos,” says Laurent. “The feeling was that the situation was no longer bearable and that a strong decision had to be taken to save the coming high season.”
According to Laos’ National Taskforce for Covid-19 Prevention and Control, the decision was taken after canvassing public opinion and consulting experts. “What caught us by surprise is the fact that vaccinated travellers do not require a predeparture test and nobody is subject to any form of testing once in Laos. Currently, the only requirement is for non-vaccinated travellers to take a Rapid Antigen Test (ATK) test 48 hours prior to departure and present the results upon arrival in Laos. In short, we have almost completely returned to how things were pre-Covid.”
Laurent says that Laos Mood always recommends travel insurance, but he pointed out that it is no longer a requirement. “Pre-pandemic, insurance was optional, then restrictions required a minimum of $50,000 per person including Covid-19 cover. Now no Covid-specific insurance or minimum cover is required. The only caveat is that travellers who may test positive for Covid-19 during their stay will be responsible for all treatment costs,” he told ITIJ.
When the borders do eventually reopen, the country may well get flooded with crowds of Chinese tourists coming overland by train
Other Southeast Asian countries have been opening up fast, too – Bali, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all getting back on track. The big unknown, however, is China, which is still pursuing a rigorous zero-Covid policy. This is not insignificant for Laos, as Laurent explained. “With the opening of a high-speed train from Kunming to Vientiane late last year, Laos was banking on an influx of Chinese tourists but with borders still closed and China locking down harder than ever, the train is limited to running within Laos and for vaccinated travellers only. When the borders do eventually reopen, the country may well get flooded with crowds of Chinese tourists coming overland by train. We know that the demand will be high. Is Laos ready to handle such crowds? I doubt it.”
Laurent says that the challenge will be how to manage the expectations and behaviours of these relatively new mass tourism neighbours with that of returning western guests who know and love Laos as a peaceful destination of culture, eco-tourism, and natural beauty.
Generally, the situation within Southeast Asia’s travel industry is improving. Laurent can certainly see blue skies approaching. “With a bit of luck and the quick resumption of flights connecting us to major regional air hubs such as Bangkok, Hanoi and Singapore I am hoping that October sees the return of our high season. And yes, normality!”