How Coronavirus is Affecting Tourism in Asia

An outbreak of a global pandemic can have unexpected consequences.

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional nor a travel advisor; a lot of this info is taken from external sources (linked in the article) and some of it is based on my on experiences travelling in Asia during the outbreak. But like, I’m not a corona expert. Oh and btw, all photos are from Singapore unless it says otherwise.

SECOND DISCLAIMER: Whelp, Jesus, things have surely changed a lot since publishing this article. 

‘There’s a new deadly virus going around and Elina is immediately travelling to Asia,’ a friend joked after I landed in Bali in late January.

I probably shrugged the comment off with a counter-joke. At that point, corona had only killed a little under 100 people in China and one guy in the Philippines, and while everyone was talking about it, no one seemed to take it extremely seriously.

A month later, I had to leave Bali for a visa run; the Indonesian government requires all travellers on the free 30-day visa to leave the country once a month.

Heading back from Singapore, the number of people wearing face masks had increased. At check-in, I was handed a customs declaration form and a yellow slip of paper where I had to jot down if I was feeling sick and if I’d been to China in the past two weeks. Walking through security, I passed towering lamp-like devices, almost like speedometers, that were monitoring the temperature of passengers. The plane – one of those huge ones with nine seats in a row – was half empty.

Changi airport is one of the biggest travel hubs in the world and Singapore has had over 100 cases of corona with 30 still active; My housemates were kind of nervously joking about me bringing corona back as a souvenir, and my mum was as worried as she usually is. ‘Do you have hand sanitizer with you?’ she texted me after landing. ‘That’s all I’ve been drinking!’ I replied and received a sad-face emoji as a response.

People all over the world are freaking out. The Doomsday is coming. Or is it?

Coronavirus: what the hell is actually going on

Coronavirus itself is a little bit of a misleading title: corona is an umbrella term for a lot of different flu-like sicknesses (including the common cold); this one is a new type of coronavirus called COVID-19.

The virus is believed to have originated from a livestock market in Wuhan, China. As of now (March 4,) 3,203 people have died (2,981 of them in China); 93,186 cases have been diagnosed, although there are under 40,000 active cases since over a half of the cases have already recovered.

Now there are three main reasons people are so scared of COVID-19:

The virus is thought to have originated from bats. Diseases don’t usually transfer from animals to humans; when they do, they mutate, and they are potentially more fatal than human-origin viruses since we don’t have pre-existing immunity towards them (see SARS, swine flu.)

There are also a lot of racist and xenophobic elements to the fear over corona. Since it originated from Asia and especially China, it’s considered exotic and scary (compared to, say, seasonal flu, that WHO estimates can lead up to 290,000-650,00 deaths annually.)

The biggest reason the coronavirus is causing so much global panic is that reasonably little is known of it. The unknown is always scary.

You can protect yourself by washing your hands often and avoiding touching your face; face masks won’t help much unless you’re the one who’s sick.

Read more about the virus here:

World Health Organization: COVID-19 outbreak

An excellent break-down by a blogger and physician at The Sophisticated Life

For an easily-digestable info package, check out @twodustytravelers on Instagram: Emily is an experienced nurse and a medical professional, and she is working in the corona unit in the hospital that had the first coronavirus case in the US. Find her coverage on the virus in the profile highlights. (Her stories also link to other sources.)

Fear and loathing in Southeast Asia: Consequences of an Asian virus outbreak

It’s Saturday morning in Chinatown, Singapore. This is one of the most popular tourist areas in the city but today – on a beautiful weekend morning – it looks more like a ghost town; many shops and stalls are closed, the streets are empty. Entering Buddha’s Tooth Temple, I spy a sign apologising for a closure of most of the temple, and I have to skip seeing the famous alleged piece of Buddha’s tooth. The woman at the entrance takes down my name and phone number, and I have to tick a box assuring I’m not sick. The worshippers are gathered in front of the altars, praying and sweating under the little coolness that the fans provide; another sign advises that the AC has been turned off to prevent the spread of the virus.

The metro seems to never be busy; I can always find a seat. The underground walls are full of framed posters advising public to wash their hands, cough into a tissue and stay home if they’re feeling sick. Other posters endorse capitalised slogans like ‘STAY CALM STAY STRONG’ and ‘LET’S ALL STAY HEALTHY.’

The unforeseen consequences of the corona outbreak

Singapore, as many other countries, seems to be handling the virus outbreak calmly. Right now, many people – travellers or not – are worried whether they’re going to get sick; but as much as it sucks to be ill, the ramifications for such a large-scale pandemic can be harmful in unexpected ways.

Asians around the world have reported more cases of xenophobia as panicked citizens rush to point fingers at anyone who looks slightly Chinese.

The first signs are starting to show in global economy. Supply chains are interrupted as export and import activities slow down or stop. China is one of the biggest players in the world economy, manufacturing and exporting electronic, medical, technical and organic products and raw materials – well, you’ve all seen those “MADE IN CHINA” tags.

Interestingly, it might also help advance freedom of speech in China where a lot of people have been blaming the government for giving false or too little information on the virus; just after the Hong Kong riots highlighting the same issue, who knows what people’s demands for free speech could lead to. The Daily did a very interesting podcast episode on this.

And naturally the effects on tourism are going to be huge.

On Saturday, the travel blogger Adventurous Kate shared this on her Facebook:

‘Travel businesses are SERIOUSLY SUFFERING right now. For me and all my fellow travel bloggers, our traffic and bookings are massively down. February is one of my biggest moneymaking months of the year, as this is when people book their travel, and I will personally be out quite a bit of money this year. I am grateful that I no longer have to worry about paying rent in New York.

But that is nothing compared to what other travel businesses are going through. Guesthouses. Guides. Restaurants in popular destinations. Tour companies.’

Large, global-scale operators will take the hit and survive. It’s the small businesses and tourism operators who will really suffer, some might even be forced to close business. And for whole countries that heavily rely on tourism as a main source of income – well, this is bad news.

And we’re not just talking about Western tourists. As flight in and out of China are restricted or cancelled, the Chinese tourist flow has come to a standstill.

Why does it matter if the Chinese don’t travel?

As much as we like to joke about large Asian tour groups (which, honestly, often comes with racist undertones), the loss of them can have a huge impact on global tourism.

As China’s middle class has been growing for the past years, more people have been able to afford travel, bringing up the number of Chinese tourists worldwide. And it’s not only about sheer numbers: Chinese tourists also spent a lot when they travel. According to the United Nations World Trade Organization, in 2018 Chinese travellers spent $277 billion USD worldwide (approx. 250 billion EUR).

Now many Chinese citizens are quarantined in their homes or hospitals. Tons of flights to and from Chine have been cancelled, and new visa restrictions have been put in place in Europe. The countries taking the hardest hits from the loss of Chinese tourism are estimated to be Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam – among many other Asian nations, many of them relatively poor countries that get a lot of income from tourism.

Globally, the plummeting Chinese travel might cost hotels, airlines, restaurants and other tourism-related business billions.

Suspiciously quiet on the southeast front

Then there are the countries that suspiciously have not reported any cases.

Time reports: ‘Health experts are widely skeptical of the numbers reported by China’s neighbors, and believe the deadly infection is spreading undetected throughout much of Southeast Asia.’ South East Asia is heavily dependent on China – not only for tourism but also for trade – and many countries might want to keep good relations with the superpower, at any cost.

In February, the Indonesian government held firm that there were no coronavirus cases in Indonesia. Many criticised this, saying that there was no way there wouldn’t be any cases in a country where 2 million Chinese travel to annually (two people returning from Bali were even diagnosed upon return, with about 200 having been on the island at the height of the outbreak.) The government was blamed for simply not testing people for the virus.

A study done in Harvard said: ‘it is statistically implausible that Cambodia and Thailand do not have more cases, and virtually impossible that Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, has not reported a single one.’ Time also reported that ‘despite mounting evidence to the contrary, security minister Mohammad Mahfud MD has told reporters “the coronavirus does not exist” in the country.’

By now, two cases have been confirmed in Indonesia. 

Uluwatu, Bali

It makes sense that Indonesia would want to keep the virus under the wraps and keep up appearances that its many islands were corona-free: Indonesia “was ranked at 20th in the world tourist Industry in 2017, also ranked as the ninth-fastest growing tourist sector in the world, the third-fastest growing in Asia and fastest-growing in Southeast Asia. The country has planned to achieve 8 percent of GDP from tourism sector — by 2019.” For Bali especially, tourism is its most important economic sector. I’ve met many people here who said they’d opted for Bali instead of Vietnam or Thailand specifically because of the virus.

Still, tens of thousands of hotel bookings to Bali have been cancelled, and the government response seems to be causing mistrust towards their ability to test for or treat the virus, should travellers get sick. However, the government is working hard to keep Indonesia an attractive destination for foreign tourists, promising billions of rupiahs worth of financial incentives to make up for the loss of profits to local businesses. (Singapore has taken similar measures.) While the loss of Chinese tourists hits hard, the number of Western travellers apparently hasn’t decreased.

In Bali, you don’t see people wearing face masks on the streets. Life goes on as usual, restaurants and cafés filling with people. As large events are getting cancelled around the world, half-naked cardboard cutouts of pretty girls have started springing up around Canggu, advertising a large techno music festival taking place in July. We joke about the virus every time someone coughs or sneezes. I can’t tell if it’s a coping mechanism or are the people here actually not worried.

Uluwatu, Bali

Should you avoid travelling now?

Now, this is an interesting question.

The reason COVID-19 has been able to spread so effectively is because the global travel industry is absolutely huge: people travel more than ever, whether for work or for leisure.

In many heavily affected areas like Northern Italy or Iran, people are being advised to stay at home to help control the spread of the virus. Travel to China is pretty much banned.

On the other hand, travel cannot stop completely. You might have to fly for work. Do a visa run, like I did. Attend a friend’s wedding. The consensus is that the virus will spread nevertheless – although if it spreads slower, there will be more time to research it and maybe come up with solutions on how to better take care of those who get sick. Many argue that you wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – cancel your trip because of the flu season, either.

And the bright side is that you might get to see some previously overtouristed destinations without the crowds while helping local businesses with your tourist dollars.

Many sources recommend to re-consider travel if you belong to a risk group, i.e. you’re elderly or suffer from a chronic disease. It’s also been advised to avoid cruise ship travel.

If you’re healthy, travelling to relatively unaffected areas and taking precautions (as in, washing your hands), you will probably be fine going on your trip. Probably. It will take a few more weeks or months to figure out how serious the disease really is.

Of course some people still argue that even if you’re healthy, you can still help spread the virus to those that are more vulnerable. It’s a hard question and one that you have to consider yourself – the most important thing is to stay informed.

Keep calm and wash your hands

I think we like looking for signs of the Doomsday.

The 24-hour media cycle and instant access to everywhere in the world through internet and social media has been wonderful in spreading information, but it has also enabled the rapid spread of worry and fear. Attitudes towards the virus are bordering on mass hysteria in some places.

But this isn’t the first global pandemic we’ve dealt with, only the response seems so much stronger because of that access to information. I was in Brazil during the Zika scare, and I travelled in Europe when swine flu was making people nervous. This is nothing new.

And who knows, in the middle of the tragedy something good might even come out of this: more hospitals will be prepared for future epidemic/pandemic outbreaks, reducing the death toll. Personal hygiene might improve (because you should be washing your hands even if there isn’t a deadly global virus making rounds.) And while it’s sad how hard the tourism industry is being hit and I feel for the small, private operators that are going to suffer the most, reduced travel might provide a breather to seriously overcrowded destinations like Venice or Bali; plus, seeing how environmentally unsustainable cruise travel is, maybe it’s not all bad that their booking are down.

If you’re healthy and not in a risk group, you’re most likely to sail through the sickness relatively smoothly even if you catch it; like a bad case of the flu.

We don’t know quite yet just how bad the virus will be or what its full global consequences will be – but panicking is not going to help anyone. Instead, we should feel empathy for those affected, whether it’s people losing their income, their families or their lives.

Stay calm and stay informed – and for fuck’s sake, wash your hands.

 

Thanks for reading!

Are you freaking out over corona? Has it hit your country yet?

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