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HOMECOMING Filipinos, otherwise known as balikbayans, are pushing the demand for air travel to the Philippines.

In a news statement from Forward Keys, which tracks flight booking patterns, “Summer flight bookings for the Philippines are currently at 70 percent of pre-pandemic level,” which covers June 1 to August 31, vis-a-vis the same period in 2019. The Philippines also leads other Southeast Asian nations in terms of confirmed flight bookings for the period: Singapore was up 58 percent of pre-pandemic levels, Indonesia at 41 percent, Thailand at 35 percent and Vietnam at 32 percent.

“Travel to the Philippines is dominated by people returning to visit friends and relatives,” the company added. This was higher than the second quarter  (April-June) bookings to the Philippines, which Forward Keys earlier estimated at 29 percent in the second quarter of the year. Travel to the other destinations are “more for work and leisure,” the company noted.

Overall, visitors from the US have been speeding up the recovery of Southeast Asia’s tourism sector. “The most popular destinations for US visitors are the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. Helpfully, as US tourists are known for being high spending, average trip durations appear to be significantly longer than they were before the pandemic. This visitor profile is also more affluent, with 17 percent flying in the front of the plane, compared to 9 percent in the equivalent months in 2019.”

All three countries were the first in Southeast Asia (SEA)  to reopen their borders to foreign leisure travelers. Visitors are no longer required to take Covid tests or quarantine upon arrival.

Foreign arrivals at 719,838

Latest arrivals data provided by the Department of Tourism (DOT) also support a similar trend. From February 10 to June 19, foreign leisure travelers from abroad reached 719,838, of which 291,539 were balikbayans, and 428,299 were other nationalities.

Of the total foreign tourists, 143,976 were from the US; followed by South Korea at 46,222; Australia at 30,902; Canada 30,556; the UK at 26,586; Japan at 18,336; Vietnam 12,789; Singapore at 11,125; German at 10,509; and Malaysia at 8,641.

The same data showed close to 34 percent or 98,612 of total balikbayan arrivals were from the US, with those from Canada (18,320); Australia (9,177); and the UK (6,179) following far behind.

Reopening of these markets to leisure travelers, however, have caught airlines scrambling to increase their seat capacities; the shortfall has resulted in higher airfare. “Throughout the pandemic, airlines flying to Southeast Asia have provided more than enough seat capacity to accommodate passenger demand. However, in May 2022, the acceleration in demand started to outstrip capacity, which has been creating an upward pressure on airfares,” said Forward Keys.

SEA still playing catch up

IN terms of regions, SEA is still slow to catch up with the rest of the world. This summer, flight bookings to SEA are at just 43 percent of pre-pandemic levels, whereas bookings to Europe are 70 percent; for the Americas, 78 percent; and for the Middle East and Africa, 85 percent.

Forward Keys Vice President, Insights Olivier Ponti, said: “The recovery of air travel in Southeast Asia is lagging because travel restrictions there have been tougher. China, which used to be SEA’s largest source market, is still effectively closed; Japan, another major market for travel, is reopening very cautiously and seat capacity, which is constrained, is leading to higher airfares, which in turn dampens demand.”

Image credits: Contributed Photo