It was meant to be the year travel returned. In Europe and Asia, many countries reopened their airports and welcomed tourists. But they face a new reality: variants such as Omicron cause global panicleading governments to close borders again, and their biggest spenders – Chinese tourists – won’t be returning anytime soon.
As part of its efforts to maintain a zero-Covid approach, China announced that international flights would be maintained at 2.2% of pre-Covid levels during the winter. Since August, it has almost entirely stopped issuing new passports and imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals. Back to China also requires mountains of paperwork and multiple Covid-19 tests.
A lot of people there decided to just stay in place. Result: shopping centers have emptied, restaurants have closed and hotels are deserted. This is another blow to an industry that has just begins to recover. The slowdown is particularly affecting North and South-East Asia.
No country has been more crucial to global travel over the past decade than China. Chinese tourists spent around $260 billion in 2019, surpassing all other nationalities. Their prolonged absence would mean that travel revenues are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels soon.
Analysts say it could take up to two years before China fully reopens.
In Europe, Chinese visitors have become an increasingly important market in recent years. At London’s Sherlock Holmes Museum, for example, around 1,000 people visited each day at its peak, and at least half of them were from China, said museum supervisor Paul Leharne.
Since its reopening on May 17, the museum has attracted only 10% of its usual attendance. This year he opened an online store to sell merchandise and souvenirs, about a third of which is shipped to China, he said.
“We really feel their absence,” said Alfonsina Russo, the director of the Coliseum in Rome, referring to Chinese tourists.
In Vietnam, the pandemic has caused more than 95% of tourism businesses to close or suspend operations, according to the government.
At Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor fruit market, where masses of Chinese tourists once gathered around tables to eat durian, business has stalled. Phakamon Thadawatthanachok, a durian vendor, said she used to keep 300 to 400 kilograms of thorny fruit in stock and had to replenish it three to four times a week to meet demand. Now she had to take out a loan just to make ends meet.
“The loss of income is immeasurable,” she said. “At the moment we are only clinging to the hope that it will get better one day.”