When Beijing decided to drop the COVID-era border controls that had shut China off from the rest of the world for three years, Komang, a souvenir seller at the traditional tourist haunts of Sanur beach in Bali, could not have been happier.
"I'm excited and looking forward to Chinese tourists coming to Bali again," the 36-year-old, who goes by only one name, told Nikkei Asia. "Most importantly, always having a group of tourists around means we'll have income."
Komang is not worried about the coronavirus spreading, either, despite reports of cases surging in China. "Not at all. As long as they are healthy when they come to Bali, it should be fine," he said. "I'm vaccinated, so I'm not worried about interacting with tourists."
He is not alone in his optimism. Across Southeast Asia, hotels, restaurants, airlines and others are looking forward to the impending return of Chinese travelers for the Lunar New Year holiday.
The question is whether the industry is ready to receive them.
In Thailand -- the most popular destination in the region for Chinese travelers pre-pandemic -- the first direct flight from China since the pandemic arrived on Jan. 9, carrying over 200 passengers. Thailand's health, transportation and tourism ministers were at the airport to greet them with smiles and garlands of flowers.
"It's a good signal for Thailand's tourism sector," said Anutin Charnvirakul, the health minister. "It's an opportunity for Thais to [recover] from the damage of the past three years."
That same morning, Thai officials announced they would not impose vaccine and insurance requirements on arrivals from China, citing sufficient vaccination rates in both countries, low COVID incidence in Thailand and "inconvenience." More than a dozen countries, including Japan, Australia and the U.S., began imposing testing and quarantine restrictions on travelers from China following the reopening, while South Korea suspended the issuance of short-term visas for them.
China stuck to its strict zero-COVID approach longer than any other major country. While travelers from elsewhere in the world have been trickling back to Southeast Asia for some time, without China back in the picture the region's tourism industry had little hope of regaining its pre-pandemic heights.
Chinese tourists spent $254 billion during their travels abroad in 2019, according to Statista, much of it in Southeast Asia. That same year, Chinese travelers to Indonesia spent an average of $1,114 per visit, while in Thailand they spent around $1,467. When that inflow of money stopped, it left a hole that other travelers have not been able to fill.
That is partly because Chinese travelers accounted for 22% of all visitors to the region before the pandemic, and their spending helped create jobs. The hospitality sector employs almost 11 million people in Indonesia, nearly 8 million in the Philippines and about 7 million in Thailand, according to the latest statistics from the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Budget hotel chain RedDoorz, like souvenir seller Komang, is excited about the return of Chinese tourists even though its customers are primarily domestic travelers.
"Chinese tourists are important," Amit Saberwal, who started the chain in Indonesia, told Nikkei Asia. "They are big drivers of the travel economy and they will certainly lift the overall sentiment of the industry."