The Covid-19 pandemic has spread to almost every country in the entire world after first breaking out in Wuhan in December 2019. This pandemic is the most serious and damaging since the Spanish Flu a century ago and has totally changed the world – the way we live, work, and travel. And it has created a “new normal” way for our lifestyle, especially our travel, that may never return to the way we were accustomed to, at least for years to come, even with an effective and affordable vaccine widely available. The good news is that medical expert Dr. Anthony Fauci of US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is cautiously optimistic that more than one effective vaccine should appear by the end of 2020 and the vaccines could possibly be available in mass by early 2021, not taking into account the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V” that was approved by the Russian government on August 11.
The pandemic of the century is reckoned by some as a tsunami in small and big waves and every country is trying hard to fight it when it hits their shores. As of mid-August, more than 21.5 million have been infected worldwide and more than 770,000 have succumbed to complications.
Due to the highly unpredictable and elusive nature of the virus, countries around the world have adopted different strategies to combat their outbreaks with varying degree of success. Surprisingly, some of the best success stories are from Thailand and New Zealand and from Vietnam as well, until very recently when a new outbreak occurred in Danang and has since spread to some other areas in the country. In fact, Thailand was ranked first among the world’s safest destinations recently by the Berlin-based travel startup Tourlane. Nevertheless, the GMS region is still considered rather successful in its overall control of the pandemic as compared to many other regions in the world. (Country updates are available here: https://www.mekongtourism.org/coronavirus-update/). Life has almost returned to normal in Yunnan, China. People are beginning to travel again as current hotel booking numbers clearly show the vibrancy of domestic tourism. Other countries such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia are all doing relatively well in keeping their outbreaks under control. This will have a very positive impact on the safety perceptions of tourists when they plan to return after the borders are open.
Have travel trends changed?
Definitely yes! So what’s in and what’s out?
Cheap package tours are out and free independent or FIT travels are in. Crowded indoor activities are out; open-air outdoor activities in small groups are in. I believe outdoor adventure travel will be the flavor of the month and may last for quite a long time to come. The following are some sectors of travel I expect will be in higher demand and what the region has to offer; and what tour operators and other travel industry professionals should be prepared to do to fulfill this demand by providing unique and creative experiences.
The GMS region is full of wonderful pristine natural attractions. Visitors can go mountain trekking, river rafting, kayaking, diving, and glamping etc. Activities such as mountaintop sunrise watching (think Phu Chi Fa in Chiang Rai), picnicking and frolicking in crystal clear waterfall pools (think Kuang Si Waterfall in Luang Prabang), trekking to villages to see how peoples of the various ethnic minority groups live (think ethnic groups inhabiting the mountains of Kengtung), boat cruising on the Mekong (think slow boat cruising from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang), on Ayeyawady River Myanmar (think luxury cruises from Yangon to Bagan or Mandalay to Bagan) and many other rivers in the region will all create great memorable experiences. Do not miss out southern Laos’ wonderful Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) and Southeast Asia’s biggest waterfall Khone Phapheng near the border with Cambodia. If you have deep pockets and looking for luxury in the jungle, you will be absolutely pampered if you find yourself in Shinta Mani Wild in Cambodia or Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Both properties have the signatures of Bangkok-based Bill Bensley, world class hotel and resort designer.
Islands and Beach Travel
Except for Yunnan and Laos, the other four GMS countries of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar have some of the world’s best and most stunning sea islands and beaches. These destinations will be in great demand by free independent travelers who prefer to stay away from crowded cities. Top islands like Phuket, Lanta, Samui, Koh Chang, Koh Samet in Thailand and Phu Quoc and Con Dao in Vietnam are well known by seasoned travelers. Lesser known is Koh Rong in Cambodia and almost all of those 800 plus undeveloped islands in Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar. On offer are an abundance of activities that may include boat cruising, island hopping, fishing, diving, snorkeling, visiting sea gypsy fishing villages, or just lying on the beach doing nothing and simply letting the sea breeze gently blow away all your blues!
Coffee tours are getting more and more popular, especially among the young café culture generation. It’s an open secret that GMS countries, specifically Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, produce very high quality coffee that ranks among the best in the world. Familiar brand names such as Doitung and Doi Chaang in Thailand, Sithar and Genius in Myanmar, Sinouk in Laos, and Trung Nguyen in Vietnam are popularly known among travelers. Chic cafes are popping up in bigger cities in all these countries as the coffee culture is becoming more ingrained among the population. A visit to any of these coffee farms also makes a very educational and enjoyable day trip. Exclusive coffee tour operators in the region are small in number, while some coffee producers have organized their own. Sinouk Coffee in Laos is a good example with their coffee resort on the Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos where the majority of Lao coffee is cultivated.
Rice farming with farmers using traditional ways engaging buffalos to plow the soil is also something young tourists find exciting and enjoyable to experience. Organic vegetable and fruit tree farming may also offer an equally unique experience.
The GMS countries are haven for cyclists if special tailor-made programs are designed to cater to various special interest groups. Some destinations have excellent bicycling lanes built for locals as well as visitors. One such example is the miles-long bicycle lane along the Mekong in Nakorn Phanom, Thailand opposite Laos. There are some tour companies in the region specializing in bicycle tours such as Spice Roads and Grasshoppers.
Spiritual Buddhist Travel
In the aftermath of a pandemic, many are turning to meditation and visiting temples for their spiritual wellbeing. A majority of the GMS region’s residents are Buddhist and there are literally hundreds of thousands of new and old Buddhist temples scattered around all of the countries. Ideally, a Buddhist travel trail and program can be designed for specific leisure travel groups and even for pilgrimages.
Arts, Culture and Heritage
Art is food for the soul. Soft adventure travels cover visiting art galleries, artists’ studios, museums, and ancient cultural heritage sites. including many of the famed UNESCO World Heritage sites in the region such as Sukhothai in Thailand, Vat Phou in Laos, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and My Son Sanctuary in Vietnam.
In search of good food to satisfy one’s natural hunger and for energy to work and play is always on any traveler’s mind and it could be such a big deal that some serious ones may opt to travel only to eat. Therefore, refined foodie tours may appeal to this specific group of travelers. Some may focus on fine dining and others on local cuisine and street food. Most visitors are interested in local cuisine some may also be curious enough to take a crash course in cooking. There are private stand-alone cooking schools in most GMS destinations and some courses are offered by hotels or resorts. In view of the possibility that Covid-19 virus may still linger around among us even when the pandemic has come under better control, I expect restaurants with outdoor seating will be more appealing.
The GMS region certainly has the best options for safe post-pandemic travels and the offer is so diverse that there is always something to meet your taste and interest. Go Mekong and share your experience the moment borders are open.