Jhe COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to tourism across Asia which has been a driver of economic growth, especially in countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Thailand and Indonesia. Today there is a trifecta of impacts on the tourism industry in the region, first from COVID, then from the conflict in Ukraine and lately from lockdowns in China.

The tourism that propelled the tiny Indian Ocean island nation – the Maldives – into a middle-income country had to close its borders for the first time in 2020, but after reopening in July 2020, the Maldives has gradually started to attract tourists because they were seen as a safer place to vacation with sparsely populated remote islands. Thus, in 2021 the Maldives attracted 1.3 million visitors. Then, issues beyond their control impacted visitor arrivals from China and Russia, two of its biggest markets.

After recovering from the devastating Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and the two-year-long COVID pandemic, Sri Lankan tourism was picking up again towards the

Tourists bring much-needed foreign currency

end of 2021. The conflict in Ukraine has dealt a severe blow to this recovery since Russians and Ukrainians have been coming to Sri Lanka in large numbers for years, especially during the European winter. Ironically, when Sri Lanka opened after the COVID lockdowns, it was Ukrainian tourists who arrived first on a tour package.

Travel warnings

Added to this is a home crisis, the political protests that have been staged across the country from March that have crippled an already shaky economy and Sri Lanka have been making headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons. As many countries issue travel warnings to their citizens against traveling to Sri Lanka, the travel industry is now facing an unprecedented crisis which would see many service providers in the tourism industry shut down In the coming months.

It is ironic that protesters demonstrating against government policies that nearly bankrupted the country are cutting off the arm of the very industry that should be bringing in much-needed foreign currency to ride out the economic crisis.

Before the pandemic, tourism brought in some $4 billion in foreign exchange earnings to the country each year. Tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earning industry in Sri Lanka, beaten only by worker remittances and the garment industry. Tourism also has a high value added component of around 80%, with only a few food and other imported products. With drastically reduced revenue streams, the tourism industry is now in freefall, running out of cash – like the government’s Central Bank – to sustain its operations.

“Hotels are struggling to maintain minimal operations. Costs are increasing every week and food prices are skyrocketing. Menus have been reduced due to unavailability of food items,” noted Srilal Mitthapala, former chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Hotel Association in a comment published by the Daily Mirror here. “Even with the appreciation of the exchange rate, leading to some improvement in rupee-equivalent returns from US dollar room revenue, the cost increase outweighs that.”

“Therefore, room rates may need to be increased to make operations viable. In the post-COVID environment, when all destinations are trying to bring tourists back, such an increase in fares could jeopardize our competitiveness in the global market,” he warned.

China’s lockdowns are also having a huge impact on tourism revenues across Asia, as Chinese tourists have been driving the economic growth of the tourism sector across Asia, especially since the European economic crisis. of 2008. As Bloomberg recently reported, the closures have created a “US$280 billion black hole” for global tourism. Thailand is the most affected because when the pandemic arrived, more than 10 million Chinese visitors arrive in the kingdom each year.

Although Thailand’s tourism industry is slowly coming back to life with famous nightclubs recently allowed to open, the night markets are still deserted, as are the food-selling streets that are popular with Chinese visitors.

It is ironic that China, which first dealt with the COVID-19 virus and imposed shutdowns and quickly reopened cities claiming the virus was under control, is now returning to a zero COVID policy when most other countries from the Asian region (and elsewhere) are learning to live with the virus by treating it as endemic rather than a pandemic. China, which exported some 100 million tourists a year before the pandemic, has now virtually closed the country to its 1.4 billion people.

Thailand is now looking beyond the Chinese market to help revive its badly affected tourism industry. Tourism Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakarn told the South China Morning Post he expects Thailand to welcome between 7 and 10 million foreign tourists this year, but still a fraction of the 39.9 million in 2019. To compensate for the lack of Chinese visitors, Thailand is now turning to Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

All travelers entering the country must undergo screening, including body temperature screening, and present the required documents to the Immigration/Health Screening Officer. Non-Thai nationals must apply for a “Thai Pass online” before traveling to Thailand. However, the government has announced that this requirement will be lifted on July 1. Inbound travelers, regardless of their country of origin, are no longer subject to COVID-19 testing upon arrival.

COVID Lockdowns

Bali is another tourism hotspot in Asia where most of its residents have suffered a devastating blow from the COVID shutdowns. It has slowly opened up to foreign visitors since March this year, but the predominantly Hindu island now fears it is attracting too many “trash tourists”, who show a lack of respect for local culture and religion.

The South China Morning Post reported that recently a Canadian who filmed himself dancing naked on Mount Batur and a Russian influencer who stripped naked for a photoshoot on a 700-year-old tree in the compound. from a temple insulted the local Balinese. . Social activist Niluh Djelantik warned in an Instagram post: “You are welcome to have a good time and enjoy our island. But if you don’t respect us, expulsion and consequences await you.

After nearly two years of pandemic travel restrictions, Bali completely dropped its quarantine requirement for vaccinated visitors in March and resumed the visa-on-arrival process. In 2019, some 6.2 million foreigners surrendered, and their absence in the years that followed was deeply felt.

In a bid to bring back more tourists, Bali Governor Wayan Koster has called on Jakarta to recognize that COVID-19 has become endemic on the island, with cases stable “at 10 to 20” per day and a positivity rate “still below 2 percent”.

In the decade before the pandemic, tourism across Asia underwent a dramatic transformation, with the region no longer dependent on Western tourists and the phenomenal growth of the tourism sector was fueled by the growth of the Asian middle classes. traveling in the region, supported by the low cost airlines and hostels in the region. The question is, will those days return and how long will it take for that to happen?