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The economic disruption has been vast. The human suffering immeasurable. As the 'Year of the Rat' gives way to the Ox, it's time to turn the page. And there are good reasons to believe that 2021 will be far brighter – a time for healing.

Economists Think Asian Travel Can Quickly Fully Resume 5 Months After Pandemic Control
Photo Credit: BangkokPost
How quickly they'll return will determine the pace of recovery. Singapore, despite its deep pockets, saw growth plunge as its economy is tied to the global cycle far more than most. As service demand and travel returns, it will stand to benefit accordingly. Vietnam likely had the highest growth rate in Asia in the calendar year of 2020, and will again, it appears, be among the top in region in the Year of the Ox.
The economic disruption has been vast. The human suffering immeasurable. As the 'Year of the Rat' gives way to the Ox, it's time to turn the page. And there are good reasons to believe that 2021 will be far brighter – a time for healing.
Yet, for all the optimism about vaccines and better treatments, it is important to remember that the disease is still ravaging in parts of Asia, still taking lives, still disrupting livelihoods. Many markets in the region, of course, have fared much better than those elsewhere: Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand, and mainland China, especially.
India and the Philippines, deeply affected by the virus, seem to have turned a corner – while the suffering continues, at least in aggregate their 'curves are bending' with fewer and fewer daily infections registered.
However, there are economies in the region where the numbers are still accelerating. Malaysia and Indonesia are two examples. The latest surges have necessitated, once more, social distancing requirements, even if more local and limited this time, which are weighing on activity.
In Korea and Japan, too, infection rates are running at their highest pace to date, while Hong Kong is experiencing a 'fourth wave'. Relative to the size of their populations, these outbreaks are still small, much smaller than those seen in other parts of the developed world. 
Nonetheless, they are taking a significant toll, above all human, but also economic. Asia's relative success in containment reflects ongoing social distancing and lockdown requirements. While these are no longer as stringent, on the whole, as earlier in the year, they remain significant in a number of places (Table 1). In particular, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines continue to have an elevated level of restrictions, with an index reading above 50.
Conversely, Taiwan and New Zealand have the least restrictions, having managed to stay almost virus free for much of the year. Elsewhere, some measures remain in place.
It is important to note, however, that even in economies where social distancing requirements are now relatively mild, a significant drag on activity lingers. The first reason for this is fear: as long as the virus is not entirely eliminated within a country's borders, and as long as effective prevention and treatment methods are not widely available, caution will reign.
Our second table, for example, shows the level of mobility at 'transit points and stations' based on Google data, which measures the frequency of travel through important thoroughfares relative to a pre-pandemic baseline. This provides a useful proxy for the reticence among consumers to mingle in crowed places, or to venture outside their homes, and, by extension, offers an idea about the lingering degree of fear over contagion.
At first glance, the data align relatively well with the existence of official restrictions. Malaysia and the Philippines, for example, still have relatively low mobility scores and comparatively tight social distancing requirements (although in India, for example, while some lockdown measures remain in place, mobility seems to have recovered quite a bit).
However, even in places where restrictions are now more modest, and the virus is by and large contained, mobility remains depressed. In Thailand, Australia, and even New Zealand, for example, internal travel through transit and public transportation points is still between 20 per cent and 30 per cent below its pre-pandemic level.
The second reason for the lingering drag on activity is the comprehensive controls on international travel observed by all economies. Therefore, even markets that have relaxed local restrictions, and where demand is recovering, still suffer from the loss of international tourism revenue as well as other cross-border commercial activity that requires travel. 
In part, of course, this is offset by rising domestic tourism, such as in mainland China, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, but in most cases, this is nowhere near enough to offset the loss of visitors from overseas. Chart 4 shows estimates of inbound international tourism revenue: in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, and Vietnam this topped 4 per cent of GDP in 2019.
One key question is how quickly travel will rebound in 2021. This is hard to say, being dependent not only on vaccine availability, but also on cross-border documentation agreements, the degree to which confidence for overseas trips recovers, and the desire and ability of would-be travellers to spend after what amounted for many to a year of economic hardship.
The experience from previous epidemics, such as SARS in the early 2000s, and Korea's MERS outbreak in 2015, which both recorded mortality rates much higher than seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, is that travel can resume quite quickly. Of course, the current outbreak has lasted far longer and has been a lot more wide-spread, and thus parallels need to be drawn with caution. Still, it is remarkable that on average it took only just over five months for visitor arrivals to return fully to their pre-outbreak level after the end of SARS and MERS. 

DIEP NGUYEN