Tourism Hostage to Coronavirus Outbreak
/ By Christine Nayagam
The coronavirus outbreak is expected to severely impact global tourism industry. Not only will it hurt arrival of Chinese tourists into many countries around the world, it will also hit the number of tourists visiting China and its neighbouring countries.
This year, it’s with less enthusiasm that Chinese gathered in usually crowded places in China and around the world to celebrate the Year of the Rat. With public places and touristic attractions in Asia where Chinese tourists travel the most during this festive season closing their doors to Chinese visitors and keeping strong health security measures including mandatory port of masks, have made leisure travel and overall ambience quite scary.
On a recent trip to Vietnam, as the outbreak of coronavirus was spreading quickly with rising number of infected or people who died, this correspondent saw that tour operators had stopped taking Chinese tourists on tours for activities and sightseeing. Some public buses in Ho Chi Minh city even carried offensive and discriminatory posters saying that travellers from mainland China were not welcome. “Careful, don’t stand here and wear mask, Chinese tourists are coming. Chinese tourist eat bats, we don’t eat bats, bats brought coronavirus,” said Jim, a Vietnamese tour guide during a visit at the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.
As usual, the outbreak has led to speculation about the cause of the epidemic with some posts accusing Chinese unhealthy and cruel meat food habits, others saying the virus was spread through dead animals sold at a local market in Wuhan where the epidemic began. The internet was also soon flooded with scary pictures and videos of victims of the virus, including people dropping dead on streets even as doctors wearing futuristic hazard-proof dresses.
However, according to many health experts, the virus does not seem to be as deadly as SARS, which killed 774 people from 2002 to 2003. Many patients with coronavirus outside China have already made full recoveries according to various sources while the Chinese government says that those who died had other ailments that compromised their immune systems.
The global fear has clearly made many psychotic, some others even racist, avoiding Chinese origin or “Asian looking” people living outside China. “It’s funny nowadays I always find a metro seat even during peak hours and no one approaches me. When I sneezed in the supermarket, the cashier literally ran away and I am not even Chinese,’’ says Eric, a Franco-Cambodian living in Paris.
On January 30, WHO declared a global health emergency, forcing many countries to cut off all transport links including flights to and from China. This included Singapore whose primary market in terms of tourist arrivals is China. Figures from the Singapore Tourism Board showed that 248,000 travellers from the mainland entered Singapore last November, while 3.42 million mainland Chinese tourists visited in 2018.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “It’s going to hurt us. China is a very big source of tourists for Singapore.” The SARS outbreak in 2003 saw Singapore’s economy suffer an estimated loss of nearly USD 5 billion. China is indeed currently the first largest source market in the world with more than 150 million outbound tourists registered in 2019. It is also one of the highest spending.
On January 27, the Malaysian government announced that all immigration facilities, including the issuance of visas for Chinese citizens from Wuhan and the areas around Hubei province, would be halted with immediate effect. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, Malaysia also imposed a week-long travel restriction on travellers from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam. Throughout 2003, tourist arrivals from China fell by 37.3 pc to 422,624 compared to 674,056 in 2002 but rebounded in 2004 rising to 15.7 million, a 48.5 pc increase compared to the previous year.
And in India, while most of Indian carriers have already cancelled all flights to and from China, many tour operators said their business is severely hit and that it will at least take several months to recover. “It’s just the beginning unfortunately. I have inbound groups coming from the US and transiting through China, but we have to change the entire flight bookings now as they don’t want to land there. I have some other outbound groups going from India to Asian countries including Thailand that have cancelled their trips and for which we need to find alternatives,” says Anup Nair, managing director at Inspiration India, a tour operator based in New Delhi.
“It’s definitely a reality, sadly. There is some impact, questions and concerns amongst outbound travellers who are concerned. We’ve had legit concerns from pax traveling to Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam amongst others. Have not had significant cancellations, changes done yet but everyone is keeping track of the current and global scenario very dynamically for sure”, adds Aneesh Kalsi, managing partner at Ambe World Travels.
Shikha, a travel professional from Delhi has also cancelled her trip to Thailand. “I was to attend an Indian wedding in Hua Hin on the first week of February, but alarming articles and reports about risks at airport particularly and in Thailand at the moment made us cancel everything at the last minute with no refund possible,” she said. The coronavirus indeed is not only impacting Indian outbound tourism to China but also neighbouring countries.
Online travel booking platforms also witnessed cancellations and drops. Currently flights to China and its neighbouring countries have dropped tremendously even though this is a high travel season. ‘‘Last week we registered a 31 pc dip in bookings from the previous week,” says Balu Ramachandran, senior vice-president, Cleartrip to the Hindu.
Published in India Outbound Magazine, February 2020.
Adds ATCNews that Africa’s main tourism economies too need to embark on an immediate assessment of the impact of travel restrictions, reduction of flight frequencies or outright halt of connectivity for their own economies and devise measures to minimise the impact of the reduced travel flow, from China and other countries, to cushion against the almost inevitable blow the Corona Virus outbreak will have.