Travel to PHL, Asia Pacific seen picking up in July-December

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THE return to full air connectivity, especially within Asia Pacific, is key to the tourism recovery in the region, especially the Philippines, which has largely relied on the Chinese market to boost its inbound tourism numbers.

Olivier Ponti, VP-Insights for Forward Keys (Courtesy Forward Keys)

In an email exchange with the BusinessMirror, Forward Keys Vice President-Insights Olivier Ponti, said, “The recovery of the Asia Pacific region is clearly underway, but we are witnessing a gradual process rather than a sudden rebound. Given that there was no coordination in the reopening of the countries in the region, each destination started rebuilding air connectivity at its own tempo. Some are more advanced than others, but all need more time to be fully back on track.”

Ponti added, “Airlines and airports cannot resume operations with the appropriate level of services overnight, especially given that many are facing staffing issues. The speed at which the region will get back to pre-Covid levels will highly depend upon its ability to reestablish air connectivity, especially within the region itself. Airlines need a stable environment to operate, and as we are moving toward this stabilization, we expect travel to and within Asia Pacific to pick-up more strongly in the second half of 2023, unless a new Covid variant or geopolitical tensions lead governments in the region to revert to travel restrictions.”

A knowledge partner of the World Travel and Tourism Council, Forward Keys gathers global data on aviation movements based on actual ticketing sales.

Among lowest-ranked destinations

In data made available at the recent ITB Berlin convention, Forward Keys showed international arrivals to Asia Pacific just 49 percent lower than the same period in 2019. This was a significant improvement from the 74-percent drop in international arrivals in the region in 2022 from 2019 levels.

Philippines continues to rank low among destinations for Chinese tourists. (Infographic courtesy Forward Keys)

For flights booked between March and August this year, the Philippines ranked among the lowest destinations for Chinese travelers, at 73 percent lower than bookings in 2019. Macau, a territory of mainland China, proved to be the “most resilient” destination, with air bookings by Chinese travelers at just 4 percent lower versus 2019 bookings. It was followed by Hong Kong (-53 percent) and Singapore (-55 percent).

Ponti explained, “What it true for Asia Pacific also holds for China. The full recovery of the Chinese outbound market implies lifting all remaining travel restrictions and reducing delays for processing passport renewals and visa applications. Rebuilding international air connectivity is also going to be crucial as the lack of airlift currently is the main bottleneck. For their part, Chinese officials have indicated that the authorities would support a progressive return outbound travel and Chinese airlines keep increasing seat capacity.”

China-Boracay flights

Prior to the pandemic, China was the second largest source market for tourists for the Philippines, at 1.74 million arrivals, accounting for 21 percent of the 8.3 million international tourists that year. The Department of Tourism is currently working to simplify visa requirements for China and India to enable their travelers to apply for the arrival document online. As of March 15 this year, arrivals from China were just 33,311. (See, “12-M arrivals ‘achievable’ by 2028, says DOT chief,” in the BusinessMirror, March 20, 2023.)

Philippines-based carriers Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific have already restarted their routes to mainland China, while foreign carriers such as Central Airlines, Cathay Pacific, South Airlines, Air Asia, and Xiamen Airlines also offer several routes between both countries, sometimes with layovers in third countries.

Meanwhile, PAL senior vice president and general counsel Carlos Luis D. Fernandez confirmed that the carrier will be offering charter flights between some points in China to Kalibo International Airport, the gateway to Boracay Island.  The island—popular among Chinese honeymooners and families—was recently visited by the Chinese Ambassador to Manila. (See, “Chinese envoy meets Aklan local chiefs,” in the BusinessMirror, January 10, 2023.)

“We’ve awarded [that route] to some charters based in China,” said Fernandez, although details are still being ironed out, adding that the carrier had to bid out the service due to huge demand. “There are several cities in China such as Nanking and Chengdu, that we’re mounting it from…. but there are changes, so it’s still not final,” he explained. But the service will definitely start by summer, he said.