WTM 2018: South-east Asia bouncing back

South-east Asia has had its fair share of setbacks this year, but it’s remaining resilient, explains Peter Ellegard.

Tanah Lot Temple, Bali

Overall things are looking rosy for south-east Asia – the World Travel & Tourism Council forecasts the region to rank third for growth in 2018

The island nations of south-east Asia have had mixed fortunes for tourism in recent times.

Northern areas of Indonesia’s Lombok island suffered catastrophic devastation from powerful earthquakes in July and August, and flights to some airports were disrupted by eruptions of Bali’s Mount Agung in late-2017 and mid-2018.

The Philippines’ top tourism destination, Boracay, was closed to visitors for six months at the end of April, and while tourist numbers grew in other countries, Malaysia saw international arrivals fall in 2017.

Terrorism fears, crime and civil unrest in some areas of the region have also led governments of some source markets to issue travel warnings for their citizens.

But overall things are looking rosy for south-east Asia – the World Travel & Tourism Council forecasts the region to rank third for growth in 2018 – and for its southern nations of Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Brunei. This is how things are shaping up for each country.



Hotels were among the many in Lombok’s north and north-west damaged by the devastating earthquakes. After a three-week emergency period, West Nusa Tenggara’s governor decreed a six-month phase of recovery and reconstruction until February 26, 2019. Other parts of the island are unaffected.

Indonesia’s minister of tourism Arief Yahya states: “Following August’s earthquakes, both Bali and Lombok airports remained operational and we continue to welcome travellers to our beautiful archipelago.”

The country’s tourism industry has grown rapidly in recent years. It welcomed 14 million visitors in 2017, up from 12 million in 2016 and double the 2010 total, China being the powerhouse market – almost quadrupling its visitor numbers to two million over the same period.

Indonesia is targeting 20 million foreign tourists in 2019. To try to achieve its target, it is focusing on three main approaches: a digital marketing strategy, building 1,000 homestays to help accelerate destination readiness and improving air connectivity through collaborations with regional and international airlines.

Among hotel developments, Komodo’s first five-star resort – the Ayana Komodo Resort, Waecicu Beach – opened in September and the luxury, 328-room New World Grand Bali Resort opens in 2019. Cathay Dragon, part of Cathay Pacific, introduced flights between Hong Kong and Medan in October.

Euromonitor International forecasts travel to Indonesia will see strong growth, backed by increased budgets and investment, with source markets Singapore, China, Malaysia, Australia and Japan being targeted for increased tourism arrivals.

The Philippines

Receiving one million foreign tourists out of the country’s total 6.6 million arrivals in 2017, Boracay’s six-month closure in late April for an environmental reboot to tackle pollution problems and to widen traffic-choked roads was a bold move by the Philippines government. At the same time, it began highlighting other islands to spread the tourism load.

Early signs indicate it has paid off, as overseas arrivals not only held up, but increased after the shutters came down on Boracay – numbers visiting between January and July were up almost 10% on the same period in 2017. All of its top 12 source markets except sixth-placed Taiwan saw gains in the first seven months of 2018 with China, the second-largest market after Korea, recording a massive 40% increase. Boracay’s reopening last month is expected to give a further boost.

According to analysis by Trading Economics, tourist arrivals to the Philippines will continue to grow, reaching about 7.3 million in 2020.

Strong demand from tourists and business travellers has resulted in hotel expansion, with Resorts World Manila adding Hilton, Sheraton and Okura properties in the capital by the end of 2019.

Airlines have also expanded services to gateway airports beyond Manila to ease congestion there. Pal Express began flights between Bohol capital Tagbilaran and Incheon in South Korea in June 2017 and Cathay Dragon added Hong Kong-Davao City flights last month.

However, Euromonitor International sounds a note of caution, highlighting security issues and a series of travel warnings issued by countries against the Philippines in response to growing terrorism threats, particularly in southern parts of the country.


Strong demand from Chinese tourists saw arrivals through Brunei International airport leap by 18% in 2017 to reach a record 259,000, with Chinese tourists representing nearly 40% of all arrivals, and more than four million entries into Brunei by land and sea. Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore are its other top tourist markets.

According to the country’s Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism, the rise was down to factors including increased air connectivity by Royal Brunei Airlines, which expanded South Korea services, and new flights from Nanning and Kunming by Chinese low-cost carrier Lucky Air. Royal Brunei Airlines also launched its first-ever non-stop service between London and Brunei last month.

Visa regulations have been eased, allowing China and Taiwan nationals multiple-entry visas and visa on arrival, while citizens from 55 countries can now visit Brunei for between 14 and 90 days without a visa.



Tourism continues to grow strongly to Singapore. The first six months of 2018 saw more than nine million visitors arrive by air, sea and land, an increase of 7.6% on the first half of 2017. China, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and Australia are currently its top source markets.

Tourism receipts rose by 3.9% to S$26.8 billion, due primarily to growth in visitor arrivals across all top 10 markets and more visitors from high-spending markets such as China, South Korea, the USA and the UK.

Lionel Yeo, chief executive of Singapore Tourism Board (STB), says: “We’re pleased to report a second consecutive year of record tourism performance [thanks to] better-than-expected global economic recovery, continued growth in Asia-Pacific travel and increased flight and cruise connectivity to Singapore.”

Much of Singapore’s tourism success has been attributed to STB’s marketing partnerships with Changi Airport Group and Singapore Airlines, with which it signed a new, three-year tripartite deal worth S$34 million.

For 2018, STB forecasts international visitor arrivals to grow further, reaching 18.1 million. Another boost is expected in 2019, when Singapore will celebrate its bicentennial with a number of commemorative events. The World’s 50 Best festival is also coming to Singapore in 2019 and will highlight the country’s multicultural gastronomy, cheap food and world-class cocktail scene.

A hotel building boom, giving Singapore more than 67,000 rooms across 420 hotels at the end of 2017, has eased. A string of recent openings include the world’s first urban Six Senses property, in Chinatown, Six Senses Duxton and Six Senses Maxwell.


Malaysia’s tourism industry has had something of a rollercoaster ride of late, with arrivals fluctuating between 27.4 million and 25.7 million from 2014 to 2017, when they eased back to just less than 26 million – although that still made it the second-most visited south-east Asian country after Thailand.

Talking about Tourism Malaysia’s international Visit Malaysia 2020 campaign, director Shahrir Ali says: “We are committed to increasing the arrivals into Malaysia, with our target set at 36 million by 2020.”

He adds: “Our marketing focus for 2019 will be on experiential tourism, particularly rural tourism in Sabah and culture and heritage on the island of Penang.”

Increased air services are helping to boost connectivity. Malaysia Airlines launched Airbus A350s on its London-Kuala Lumpur route in March and Qatar Airways added a second Malaysian destination with the launch of non-stop, three-times-a-week flights to Penang in February.

Plus, a partnership between Tourism Malaysia and Condor Air has led to the start of three-times-a-week flights from Frankfurt to Kuala Lumpur.

Tui-owned cruise line Marella Cruises is also undertaking a new cruise holiday as part of its 2018/19 winter programme, with passengers flying direct to Langkawi to spend one night there and 14 nights on the cruise, including several stops in Malaysia.

Tourism developments include the first 20th Century Fox World movie-inspired theme park in the Genting Highlands, due to open by the end of the year, and a Splash World @ Harbour City water park in Melaka opening in 2019, with new hotels including the 365-room Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast opening this month.

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