Asia’s tourist destinations struggle to come back to life

Huoch Yen worked hard to become a tour guide at the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It took the 43-year-old three attempts to pass a license test to guide Spanish-speaking tourists in Siem Reap, where the famous landmarks are, not to mention years of studying the language.

When the COVID-19 pandemic dampened tourism in 2020, Yen decamped to his hometown in Kompong Cham province, a five-hour drive away, where he now works as a teacher. But he still dreams of resuming his job as a guide.

“I contact my friend who lives in Siem Reap to ask him about tourism every day,” says Yen. “He still tells me that it’s not going well. There are few tourists at the moment, it’s not like before.

Before the coronavirus hit, Angkor Wat was one of the busiest tourist sites in the world. Crowds of travelers from all over the world arrived before dawn each day, jostling for a spot across a small pond from the main temple complex. There they would attempt to take photos of the sunrise in an atmosphere resembling a mosh pit.

These days it is very different. The Southeast Asian nation hopes to attract one million international visitors this year – a big increase from the paltry number of visitors it welcomed in 2021, but a huge drop from the 7 million visited in 2019.

Tourists take photos in front of a largely empty Angkor Wat temple on December 10, 2021 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Cindy Liu/Getty Images

As tourists weave through crowds to snap selfies at the Trevi Fountain in Rome or throng the Strip in Las Vegas, many once-crowded Asia-Pacific tourist spots, like Angkor Wat, remain eerily quiet.

In June, the white sand beaches of Boracay, the most popular island in the Philippine archipelago, were largely free of strangers. Earlier this month, tourist boat operators on Phi Phi, the Thai islands made world famous by the Hollywood film The beach (2000) – complained that visitor numbers were “not even half” their pre-pandemic level. In nearby Phuket and the Thai capital Bangkok, guides and drivers told TIME they had had no income for more than two years.

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A two-and-a-half-hour flight from Hong Kong, there are fears the iconic Star Ferry – once rated ‘the most thrilling ferry ride’ in the world – could go bankrupt for lack of passengers. Japan, which welcomed more than 30 million tourists in 2019, received only 1,500 leisure travelers between June and July, which is normally the peak travel season. In April, dive instructors and hotel staff in Palau told TIME that tourists, who accounted for nearly 50% of the pristine Pacific nation’s GDP before the pandemic, had yet to return in numbers. significant.

A Star Ferry prepares to dock at Central on Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on May 4, 2022. The Star Ferry, whose origins date back to the 1880s, has struggled financially to keep afloat after arrivals from tourists in the city in southern China.

PETER PARCS/AFP via Getty Images

Uneven recovery of Asian tourism

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals in Asia-Pacific, from January to May 2022, were 90% below 2019 levels, making it the worst performing region in the world. Many experts predict that it will continue to lag.

Domestic and international traffic in Asia-Pacific this year is expected to be just 68% of 2019 figures. Travel is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025, a year behind the rest of the world, according to the Association International Air Transport Association (IATA). For some destinations, the bounce may take even longer. Tourism in India will not fully recover until 2026, according to a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

Asia’s slower recovery is due to a myriad of factors including the gradual opening of markets, the gradual restoration of routes and capacity, and the ‘consumer misperception’ that traveling in the region is complex due to ongoing COVID restrictions, says Liz Ortiguera, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

But there’s no denying that Asia’s pandemic rules can spoil the holiday mood. Bhutan is closed to visitors until September. Singapore still requires people to wear masks indoors. Vietnam requires masks in public places, as does Hong Kong, where a three-day self-funded hotel quarantine is required for all arrivals, followed by several days of home medical surveillance. The latter involves twice-daily temperature checks, uploading daily RAT test results to a government website, and performing three PCR tests over a five-day period.

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Japan currently asks tourists to participate in organized tours. It has been difficult for Kyoto tour guide and taxi driver Hiroshi Yano, who was dependent on government subsidies and ferrying locals instead of tourists, to make ends meet during the pandemic. He says there’s a lot less work without the millions of tourists who flocked to Kyoto each year, walking from temple to temple to take photos dressed in rental kimonos. “Not only me, but other small businesses, like small hotels and restaurants, are still hurting,” he told TIME.

The absence of Chinese travelers is a particularly significant problem for the region. Thirteen Asian countries relied on China as their main source of visitors, and it was the second-largest source for six other economies, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Travel Readiness Index for 2022. But fearing its citizens could return home With the virus, Beijing has restricted “unnecessary” overseas travel as part of its draconian pandemic measures. The recent stranding of thousands of domestic travelers on the Chinese resort island of Hainan, after a COVID outbreak there, will also make many reluctant to risk traveling to China itself.

The five-story pagoda in Kyoto, Japan, June 26, 2022. Once tired of the hordes of foreign tourists who throng its narrow streets and ignore etiquette, many in Japan’s former capital, Kyoto, yearn to return

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some destinations are doing better than others. The Maldives, which receives a large share of its tourists from neighboring India, is among the places experiencing a faster rebound. Steven Schipani, senior tourism industry specialist at the Asian Development Bank, said international visitor arrivals to the Maldives are now close to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to a rapid vaccination campaign, good connectivity airline with major source markets and simplified entry requirements. .

June arrivals in Fiji meanwhile were up 73% of the same month before the pandemic. And even though COVID restrictions remain in Indonesia, Andrew Roberts, owner of Padang Padang surf camp in Bali, tells TIME he’s seen a steady stream of tourists returning to surf the island’s world-class spots, like the towering waves of Uluwatu. . Accommodation in the camp has been at pre-pandemic occupancy levels for a few weeks now.

Asia-Pacific travel is “a sleeping dragon that wakes up in stages,” says Ortiguera. “The recovery is very uneven at the moment, but domestic tourism has grown, travelers have been attracted to new source markets and more lesser-known destinations are being marketed.”

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She argues that this is a pivotal time for a transition to a healthier and more sustainable travel industry – and indeed many see this moment as a chance to end over-tourism.

“Overreliance on international tourism and the need for some Asia-Pacific countries to diversify their economies was a problem even before the pandemic,” says Schipani. “Now, many countries are stepping up their economic diversification efforts.”

However, frontline tourism workers are pinning their hopes on a quick rebound. Yen, in Cambodia, plans to return to Angkor Wat to work as a tour guide as soon as he can. “I can earn a lot more as a tour guide than as a teacher,” he says. “I can meet many people from all over the world and have new experiences.”

In Hong Kong, Carrie Poon, 32, regrets her former life. Before the pandemic, she led food tours, taking mostly American and European visitors to off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods to try local specialties like fish balls and rice rolls, even snake soup for the more adventurous. . But when Hong Kong sealed its borders, she lost her income and decided to open a small restaurant.

“I loved my guide [life] so much,” she said. “If I could choose, I’d definitely choose the tour guide job, but it’s, like, what can you do?”

With reporting by Aidyn Fitzpatrick/Phi Phi, Thailand

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