November 24, 2021 | By Gerardine Donough-Tan

November has seen many COVID-related travel restrictions lifted in Southeast Asia. After 20  months, vaccinated Australians are free to travel abroad and return via Sydney or Melbourne relatively unfettered.

Singapore has welcomed fully vaccinated Aussies and Kiwis for many months. Recently, Thailand, Langkawi and Bali relaxed travel restrictions on foreigners too and Cambodia joined the club on November 15.

But while leisure travellers and students are happily taking off, business events players say interest is more muted in the MICE market.

Thailand’s phased reopening started in July with resort destinations Phuket, Samui and Krabi, followed by capital city Bangkok and Chiang Mai on November 1. Most of the country should be open in December and January.

“It is hard to forecast the return of business events as the global situation evolves almost daily and a lot of issues must be factored in, said Sumate Sudasna, President of Thailand Incentive and Convention Association (TICA).

“Movements with multinational participants are a challenge as source-market readiness is not quite the same. Many of us believe movements will not be in good volume until 2023.

“But then who knows,” he added optimistically, “there were surges in inquiries after the reopening plan announcement proving that travel demand is pent up indeed. TICA members report new RFPs from Australasia for Q2 2022 and beyond. The IT sector leads the pack.”

Sudasna said Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau (TCEB)’s forward-looking strategy will be a long-term boon for the industry when travel restarts.

“Basically, Thailand can accommodate business events of all types and sizes and the industry has been well prepped for event management in the ‘new normal’ scenario.”

One of TCEB’s aims for 2022 is to attract as many international events as possible, especially high-profile events. Thailand will host a slew of meetings in the run-up to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit next November.

Its development focus on aviation and logistics, robotics, biochemicals and biofuels while new industries such as bio-farming in northeast Thailand should foster related exhibitions and conferences and encourage foreign participation, including from Australasia.

Over in Malaysia, Langkawi has opened to vaccinated visitors but it may appeal more to the leisure and incentive market than business.

Francis Teo, President of Malaysian Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (MACEOS), said due to the uncertainty of borders opening, inquiries are mainly from the domestic market.

“However, recently there has been talk about borders opening between Malaysia and Australia. The national recovery council also indicated that Malaysia’s borders will be open to international travellers by January 1, 2022. We expect more interest after this opening,” said Teo.

He revealed that most international trade shows are scheduled for the second half of 2022 due to the uncertainty of the border opening.

“The first major international trade show which will be an indicator of industry sentiment is Defence Services Asia scheduled for April 2022. If the pandemic situation continues to improve and borders are open, we expect the beginning of a turnaround by mid-2022,” he said.

As for outbound incentive travel, Teo indicated that any interest would be mainly to regional destinations due to short-haul flights, smaller groups and preference for more exotic, less populated outdoor destinations for the next few years.

“Safety would be the most important criterion in destination selection,” he said.