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Tea Leaves

What virus fears can teach Asia's tourism industry

Collapse in visitor demand highlights over-reliance on Chinese visitors

Travelers wear masks at an airport in Bangkok in January. The Thai government is bracing for the impact of mass cancellations of Chinese group tours. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Not so long ago, the travel industry's biggest emerging problem was overtourism, especially in top vacation hot spots in Southeast Asia and Europe, where local resentment of visitor hordes was approaching boiling point.

Living in Thailand, a favored destination for Chinese tourists, I have witnessed an intensifying backlash against low-cost, or "zero dollar," tourism and growing outcry over environmental degradation of top nature spots. There are signs in Mandarin at various tourist sites advising visitors of appropriate etiquette.

But such concerns have now been overtaken by growing alarm over the implications -- for public health and the tourism economy -- of the coronavirus outbreak in China. Virtually overnight, fears throughout Asia over the spread of the virus have confronted the travel industry with the opposite problem: a potential collapse in tourist numbers. It also represents a hard reminder of the dangers of over-reliance on a particular source of tourists.

Thailand, with more than 30 confirmed cases of the virus in February, faces a stark situation. The Thai government in early February estimated an 80% plunge in Chinese tourist arrivals for the first four months of 2020 due to mass cancellations of group tours and related travel restrictions. Television and newspapers are full of images of empty tour buses, taxis with no customers, and silent hotels and restaurants. Asia-related travel has been severely disrupted, with many countries closing their borders to those who have recently visited China.

Major airlines have suspended or restricted flights to China, while many governments have advised against all but essential travel to the country. International airports are screening the temperatures of passengers. People wearing masks and protective gloves have become a common sight. Several cruise ships have been put in quarantine off ports in Asia due to concerns about virus carriers.

Most schools in China have closed until further notice and the government is drawing up plans for online teaching. In Bangkok, schools are implementing home learning trials and cancelling inter-school sporting events.

Thailand's Maya Bay, featured in the movie "The Beach," was closed in 2018 and will not open until 2021.   © Reuters

Some businesses have gained an unexpected boost from the virus scare including makers of face masks and hand sanitizers, and online communications providers such as Zoom Video Communications, a U.S.-based video conferencing company, which saw its share price surge in late January.

Yet, before the coronavirus outbreak, the impact of overtourism was already triggering the closure of well-known destinations in Asia amid concerns about environmental degradation.

Overwhelmed by up to 5,000 visitors per day, Thailand's Maya Bay, which served as the backdrop for the film "The Beach," was closed in 2018 for regeneration efforts and will not be reopened until 2021. In the Philippines, popular Boracay Island was also closed in 2018 due to environmental damage from overtourism. "Shutting it down meant 35,000 workers losing their jobs for six months," said Cyndi Tan Jarabata, head of the Philippines-based Tajara Leisure and Hospitality Group.

To reduce exposure and build resilience during crises, the tourism industry needs to diversify its target markets, notes Willem Niemeijer of Yaana Ventures, a Thailand-based "responsible" travel group. "Investing in increased Chinese travelers has proven very risky and the coronavirus crisis has driven that point home," he told me. "For Thailand, with so much of its economy riding on tourism, the focus should be on higher quality, and away from volume."

A girl writes on a wall two days before the temporary closure of the Philippine resort island of Boracay in April 2018.   © Reuters

Stuart McDonald, co-founder of the Australian independent travel site, also urges greater diversification in inbound tourism. "Destinations like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have become overly focused on the Chinese market and the particular form it often takes -- short trips to often already heavily developed destinations," he said. "This is at the expense of other [visitor sectors] that are more resilient to hiccups and tend to stay longer and travel further. Even without a crisis like coronavirus, this is a more intelligent approach."

Niemeijer of Yaana Ventures also favors the promotion of new destinations to curb overtourism in future. "The same few destinations keep getting promoted in Thailand -- Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai -- while the private sector should be incentivized to open up new destinations like the northeast."

For now, the Asian travel industry appears locked into a strategy of pursuing constant growth in visitor numbers.

Thailand had projected nearly 41 million visitors in 2020, up from less than 16 million in 2010, and is forecast by the London-based World Travel & Tourism Council to reach nearly 80 million visitors in 2030. About 12,000 new rooms are expected to be added in Bangkok alone over the next two years.

A recalibration of the travel industry's growth model will take time, but both the government and private sector should adopt alternative ways to measure the health of the tourism industry. Such metrics should consider the environmental and social impact of tourism - not just current measures such as arrival numbers and revenue per available room (RevPAR).

As yet, there is no single global standard for sustainable tourism, although key indicators to track the broader impact on communities and the environment have been proposed by different organizations. Leading certification bodies offer critical mass and a semblance of uniformity by basing their sustainability criteria on various sources. Tour operators, travel agents and hotels can all be certified.

The coronavirus crisis has triggered behavioral change on a massive scale. Hand washing and masks are almost mandatory in some locations well away from the epicenter of the outbreak. Emergency education measures may lead to a permanent increase in online learning. In the tourism industry, a positive outcome would be a wholesale mind-shift away from the current focus on arrival numbers to a more holistic and sustainable approach to destination management. And learning not to put too many eggs in one basket.

Peta Bassett is a Bangkok-based writer.

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