Tourism has long been a key source of income for Southeast Asia, with the majesty of Angkor Wat, the bustling streets of Bangkok and the white sandy beaches of Bali drawing eager holidaymakers from near and far. Sadly, Covid-19 travel restrictions have kept tourists at bay, placing the proud tourism industries of these exotic destinations under severe stress. 

Yet there may still be hope for the tourism sector in the form of internal tourism, which sees locals visit destinations within their own countries, providing some an income lifeline to the regional tourism industry. 

“After all, if you pine that badly to ride up the Eiffel Tower, perhaps the Petronas one is worth another look?” remarks Wellian Wiranto from OCBC Treasury Research. 

Such a trend is able to benefit middle-income economies such as Malaysia where the value of outbound tourism exceeds that of inbound tourism. Malaysians used to spend $12.4 billion abroad -- about twice its tourism intake -- which can then be turned towards the internal market during the pandemic. Stimulus budgets and tax relief schemes issued by the Malaysian government could encourage travellers stricken by cabin fever to shell the cash for a trip to historic Penang and Melaka or the solitude of the Cameron Highlands. 

“For Indonesia, while tourism is not a huge part of the GDP, it matters greatly for specific areas,” says Wiranto, noting that tourist paradise Bali has been badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic due to its reliance on foreign tourists. But with the beach holiday paradise reopened to tourists since August 2, Bali operators can now hope to fill their villas by the Uluwatu cliff and rooms by the Ubud paddy fields with Indonesians rather than “bule”, he says. 

But Thailand unfortunately has been the victim of its own success in the tourism industry, as it is consequently more exposed to the Covid-19 shock on tourism numbers. Even if every Thai spent their entire 2019 travel budget on tourism now, the takings would still be three-quarters short of 2019 earnings of $60 billion. Bangkok after all beat Paris as the world’s most-visited city in the world last year. 

Yet the desire to travel and explore new places remains unquenched despite the realities of a global pandemic, with pent up demand overwhelming amid long periods of confinement. Still, tourist destinations and providers are in desperate need of cash to survive this great ordeal. With the Singapore government distributing $320 million in tourism vouchers, perhaps it is time for Singaporeans to take a long-put-off trip to the Zoo or Bird Park to support local tourism. 

“If all the tourist-spot references have rekindled your itch to travel once again, it is proof that the industry will come back – one fine day. Until then, however, every little bit of help from domestic travellers would matter a lot,” ends Wiranto wistfully.