Flow of Chinese tourists becomes a worrying trickle for Asia
Asian nations have profited handsomely from the impressive growth in tourists from China over the past decade, but the specter of a rapidly spreading virus has raised concerns over industry prospects.
A measure of how touchy senior officials have become about the situation was seen Friday in the Thai capital Bangkok, where Public Health Minister Anutin Chanvirakul was overseeing the handout of face masks at a busy station on the sky train elevated transit system.
Anutin, waving some masks in his right hand, complained that no one should refuse them because they help stop transmission of the virus.
“And the damn foreigners, damn tourists,” he told reporters. “They should be kicked out of the country. Chinese and Asians, they all accept these masks. These damn Europeans How do we know that they are not spreading the disease? They could have been visited other cities before coming to Thailand. This is something that all Thais have to help with. If we see people like this, we should kick them out of the country.”
He later said on his Facebook page that he had become upset because of the attitude of some foreigners, who acted disrespectfully toward him and his colleagues.
A downturn will hit many people hard.
Some observers, like Prof. Lisa Wan of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School, are fairly confident the tourism industry will bounce back soon.
Using the SARS epidemic as a reference point, she noted an initial sharp decline in China‘s GDP growth was largely offset by higher growth in the following two quarters, resulting in about 10% annual growth.
The tourism industry in Thailand accounted for 15.5% of total employment — 5,834,000 jobs — in 2017, according to a report issued last year by Bangkok Bank.
Lately, the lines to get into Bangkok’s Grand Palace, a top-tier tourist attraction, have been sparse.
“The day that we heard the news (about the virus), the tourists were gone,” said Arisara Chamsue, who runs a nearby shop. “The number has dropped. And I can only make a tenth or two tenths of what I normally make.”
She said this situation reminded her of the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a another coronavirus from China that wreaked similar havoc.
As a regional tourism powerhouse, Thailand has seen its way through many crises. SARS, bird flu, bombs and the 2018 sinking of a yacht off the southern resort island of Phuket that killed 47 Chinese tourists — they turned out to be blips in a long upward curve.
The problem is acute in Phuket, one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
“The tourism industry is the only source of income for Phuket province,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the president of the Phuket Tourism Association, adding that tourism to Phuket alone contributes 400 billion baht ($12.9 billion) annually to the Thai economy. “Therefore, when there is a problem, it will affect all kinds of business such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, etc.”
Things are also a bit slow on Bangkok’s famous backpacker street, Khao San Road.
Laksinat Prommawan, a masseuse, said Monday she normally would have had a few customers already by noon, but only one had turned up all morning.
Since the beginning of February, Japan has banned the entry of Chinese from Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital. The data showing any effects will become available only later this month.
Cosmetic shops, clothing stores and restaurants in those areas complained of sharply declining sales, as many South Koreans are also avoiding crowds and staying at home.
Sales at the Lotte department store in Seoul’s bustling Myeongdong neighborhood on Feb. 1-2, the first weekend after the national Lunar New Year holidays, dropped by 30% compared to the same weekend last year, according to store officials.
The smaller but growing number of Chinese visitors to Australia — 1.43 million in 2018, the most of any nationality — contributed up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($13.4 billion) to the nation’s tourist industry.
“However, if travel disruptions are extended, or expand to cover independent travelers, the cost could be much greater,” it added.
Australia has a large niche market of foreign visitors: international education is Australia’s third biggest export and China is Australia’s largest source of foreign students, with 200,000 attending Australian universities.
“We’ve had a soft economy, the drought, the bushfires and now this virus. It’s bad news on top of bad news,” PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia chief economist Jeremy Thorpe told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
Tourism accounts for about 10% of New Zealand’s economy and is the country’s largest earner of export dollars. Just over 400,000 tourists from China visit each year, second only to the number who come from Australia.
“It’s still too early to know what the long-term economic impact of the coronavirus could be, and it may be some time before we know the full extent,” Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis told AP. “The government is taking this very seriously, and we are closely monitoring the situation.”
Associated Press writers Preeyapa T. Khunsong and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok, Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand contributed to this report.