Asia’s Tourist Destinations Struggle to Come Back to Life

Huoch Yen worked hard to become a tour guide at Cambodia’s famed Angkor Wat temples. It took the 43-year-old three attempts to pass a test for a license to guide Spanish-speaking tourists around Siem Reap, where the famous monuments are located—to say nothing of the years spent studying the language.

Yen moved to Kompong Cham, a province five hours away from his home, in order to teach after the COVID-19 epidemic halted tourism. He still hopes to return to his role as a guide.

“I contact my friend who is living in Siem Reap to ask him about tourism every day,” says Yen. “He still tells me that it’s not going well. There are limited tourists right now—it’s not like before.”

Before coronavirus struck, Angkor Wat was one of the world’s most crowded tourist spots. Every morning, thousands of people from around the globe arrived to seek a place across a small lake from the main temple complex. They would try to capture the sunrise from there in an environment resembling that of a moshpit.

These days, it’s very different. The Southeast Asian nation is hoping to notch a million international visitors this year—a big increase on the paltry number of visitors it welcomed in 2021, but a huge fall from the 7 million that visited in 2019.

Tourists pose for photos at the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap on December 10, 2021.

Cindy Liu/Getty Images

As tourists elbow through the crowd to take selfies at Rome’s Trevi Fountain, or swarm the Strip in Las Vegas, many once crowded tourist spots in Asia-Pacific, like Angkor Wat, remain eerily quiet.

In June, the white sand beaches of Boracay—the most popular island in the Philippine archipelago—were largely free of foreigners. Earlier this month, tourist boat operators on Phi Phi—the Thai islands made world famous by Hollywood movie The Beach (2000)—were complaining that visitor numbers were “not even half” their pre-pandemic levels.TIME interviewed guides and drivers in Phuket and Bangkok. They said they were without income for more than two years.

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A two-and-a-half hour flight away in Hong Kong, there are concerns that the iconic Star Ferry—once rated the world’s “most exciting ferry ride”—could go bust for lack of passengers. Japan, which hosted more than 30 million tourists in 2019, welcomed just 1,500 leisure travelers between June and July—normally peak travel season. In April, dive instructors and hotel staff in Palau told TIME that tourists, which accounted for almost 50% of the pristine Pacific nation’s GDP before the pandemic, hadn’t yet returned in meaningful numbers.

The Star Ferry is preparing to dock in Central at Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong on May 4, 20,22. Star Ferry’s history dates back to 1880s. It has had financial difficulties to stay afloat since the decline in tourist numbers to southern Chinese cities.

PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

Asian tourism’s uneven recovery

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, international tourist arrivals in Asia-Pacific, from January to May 2022, were 90% below 2019 levels—making it the worst performing region globally. Experts predict it will continue to fall behind.

Domestic and international traffic within Asia-Pacific this year is expected to reach only 68% of 2019’s figures. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) forecasts that travel will not reach its pre-pandemic level until 2025. That’s one year less than the rest of the globe. The rebound might take longer for some destinations. Tourism in India won’t fully recover until 2026, according to a report by National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

Asia’s slower recovery is due to myriad factors like the staged opening of markets, the phased restoration of routes and capacity, and the “consumer misperception” that traveling to the region is complex because of ongoing COVID restrictions, says Liz Ortiguera, the CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

But there is no denying that Asia’s pandemic rules can spoil the vacation mood. Visitors to Bhutan are not allowed until September. Singapore requires that people wear masks inside. Masks are required in Vietnam and Hong Kong. All arrivals must be subject to a three-day self-funded hotel quarantine. Then, they will have several days of home medical surveillance. These include daily temperature checks twice daily, uploading daily results of RAT tests to government websites, and three PCR test within a five day period.

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Japan requires tourists to participate in organized tours. That’s been difficult for Kyoto tour guide and taxi driver Hiroshi Yano, who has depended on government subsidies, and ferrying locals around instead of tourists, to make ends meet during the pandemic. He says there’s much less work without the millions of tourists that used to flock to Kyoto each year, walking from temple to temple to take photos dressed in rented kimonos. “Not only I, but other small-scale businesses, like small hotels and restaurants, are still suffering,” he tells TIME.

China’s absence is an especially serious problem in the region. Thirteen Asian countries relied on China as their top source of visitors, and they were the second-largest source for another six economies, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Travel-ready Index for 2022. But fearing that its citizens may return home with the virus, Beijing has been restricting “unnecessary” overseas travel as part of its draconian pandemic measures. The recent stranding of thousands of domestic travelers in China’s resort island Hainan, after a COVID outbreak there, will also make many reluctant to risk travel within China itself.

Five-storied Pagoda, Kyoto, Japan. June 26th, 2022. Many in Japan’s capital, Kyoto, are tired of the hordes foreign tourists crowding their narrow streets and disregarding etiquette.

Kosuke Okayahara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some destinations fare better than others. One of the places experiencing a faster rebound is Maldives. This country receives most of its tourists from India. Steven Schipani, a principal tourism industry specialist at the Asian Development Bank, says that the Maldives’ international visitor arrivals are now close to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to a rapid vaccination campaign, good air connectivity with large source markets, and streamlined entry requirements.

Fijian June visitors were 73% more than in the pre-pandemic period. And even though COVID restrictions remain in Indonesia, Andrew Roberts, who owns the Padang Padang surf camp in Bali, tells TIME that he’s seen a steady flow of tourists coming back to surf the island’s world-class breaks, such as the towering waves of Uluwatu. For several weeks, the occupancy at the camp is at its pre-pandemic levels.

Asia-Pacific travel is “a sleeping dragon that is waking up in stages,” says Ortiguera. “Recovery is highly uneven right now, but domestic tourism has developed, travelers have been attracted from new source markets and more lesser-known destinations are being marketed.”

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She argues that this is a pivotal time for a shift towards a healthier, more sustainable travel industry—and indeed, many see this moment as a chance to do away with over-tourism.

“Over-dependence on international tourism and the need for some Asia-Pacific countries to diversify their economies was an issue even before the pandemic,” Schipani says. “Now, many countries are redoubling their economic diversification efforts.”

However, front-line tourism workers are optimistic about a rapid rebound. Yen in Cambodia plans to return to Angkor Wat as a guide once again. “I can earn much more as a tour guide than as a teacher,” he says. “I can meet many people around from around the world and get new experiences.”

Carrie Poon (32 years old) is missing her life in Hong Kong. Before the pandemic, she led food tours, taking mostly American and European visitors to off-the-beaten track neighborhoods to try local delicacies like fish balls and rice rolls—even snake soup for the more adventurous. After Hong Kong closed down its borders, her income was cut and she decided to start a small eatery.

“I loved my tour guide [life] so much,” she says. “If I could choose I would definitely pick the tour guide job but it’s, like, what can you do?”

Aidyn Fitzgerald/Phi Phi Thailand reporting

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