Tourist destinations in Asia are struggling to come back to life

hWatch Yen worked hard to become a tour guide at the famous Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. It took the 43-year-old three attempts to pass a license exam to guide Spanish-speaking tourists around Siem Reap, home to the famous monuments – not to mention years spent learning the language.

When the COVID-19 pandemic halted tourism in 2020, Yen went to his hometown in Kompong Cham province, a five-hour drive away, where he now works as a teacher. But he still dreams of returning to his work as a guide.

“Every day I contact a friend of mine who lives in Siem Reap to ask him about tourism,” Yen says. “He still tells me it’s not going well. There are limited tourists at the moment – it’s not like it used to be.

Before the coronavirus hit, Angkor Wat was one of the most crowded tourist spots in the world. Crowds of travelers from all over the world arrived every day before dawn, jostling for space across a small pond from the main temple complex. There, they’ll try to take photos of the sunrise in a mosh pit-like atmosphere.

It’s very different these days. The Southeast Asian country hopes to climb million international visitors this year – a big increase on the paltry number of visitors it welcomed in 2021, but a huge drop on 7 million who visited in 2019.

Tourists take pictures in front of the almost empty Angkor Wat temple on December 10, 2021 in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Cindy Liu/Getty Images

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

In June, the white sand beaches of Boracay – the most popular island in the Philippine archipelago – were largely free from foreigners. Earlier this month the tour boat operators of Phi Phi— the Thai islands, made world famous thanks to Hollywood movies The beach (2000) – complained that visitor numbers were “not even half” of pre-pandemic levels. In nearby Phuket and in the Thai capital Bangkok, guides and drivers told TIME they had no income for more than two years.

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A two-and-a-half-hour flight away in Hong Kong, there are fears that the iconic Star Ferry – once classed as a “world-class”the most exciting ferry ride“-can go bust due to lack of passengers. Japan, which hosted more than 30 million tourists in 2019 just welcomed 1500 leisure travelers between June and July – usually peak travel season. In April, diving instructors and hotel staff Palau told TIME that tourists, who accounted for nearly 50 percent of the virgin Pacific nation’s GDP before the pandemic, have yet to return in significant numbers.

The Star Ferry prepares to dock at the central part of Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong on May 4, 2022. The Star Ferry, which dates back to 1880, is struggling financially to stay afloat after tourist arrivals in the southern Chinese city collapsed

PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

The uneven recovery of Asian tourism

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

Domestic and international traffic within the Asia-Pacific region this year is expected to reach just 68% of 2019 figures. Travel is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2025, a year later than the rest of the world. According to to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). For some destinations, the bounce may take even longer. Tourism in India will not fully recover until 2026, according to a report from the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

Asia’s slower recovery is due to a myriad of factors such as the gradual opening of markets, the gradual recovery of routes and capacity and the “misperception by consumers” that travel to the region is complicated due to ongoing COVID restrictions, says Liz Ortigera, chief executive of Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

But there’s no denying that pandemic rules in Asia can dampen the holiday spirit. Bhutan is closed to visitors until September. Singapore still requires people to wear masks indoors. Vietnam requires masks in public places, as well as in Hong Kong, where a self-funded three-day hotel quarantine is required for all arrivals, followed by several days of medical observation at home. The latter involves taking a temperature twice a day, uploading daily RAT test results to a government website, and taking three PCR tests over a five-day period.

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Japan currently requires tourists to join organized tours. This was difficult for the Kyoto tour guide and taxi driver Hiroshi Yano, which depends on government subsidies and carries locals instead of tourists to make ends meet during the pandemic. He says there is much less work to do without him the millions of tourists who flocked to Kyoto every year, walking from temple to temple to have their pictures taken wearing the rental kimono. “It’s not just me, but other small businesses, like small hotels and restaurants, are still suffering,” he tells TIME.

The lack of Chinese travelers is a particularly big problem for the region. Thirteen Asian countries relied on China as their main source of visitors, and they were the second largest source for six other economies, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2022 Travel Readiness Index. But fearing that its citizens might return home with the virus, Beijing was restriction “unnecessary” overseas travel as part of it draconian pandemic measures. The recent one settling down of thousands of domestic travelers to the Chinese resort island of Hainan, following a COVID outbreak there, will also make many unwilling to risk traveling within China itself.

The Five-Storied Pagoda in Kyoto, Japan, on June 26, 2022. Once weary of hordes of foreign tourists crowding its narrow streets and disregarding etiquette, many in Japan’s ancient capital Kyoto yearn for their return

Kosuke Okahara/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some destinations do better than others. The Maldives, which receives a large proportion of its tourists up close India, is among the places seeing a faster recovery. Stephen Shipani, chief tourism industry specialist at the Asian Development Bank, says international visitor arrivals to the Maldives are now close to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to a swift vaccination campaign, good air connectivity to major source markets and streamlined entry requirements .

Meanwhile, there were June arrivals in Fiji 73% from the same month before the pandemic. And although COVID restrictions stay in Indonesia, Andrew Roberts, who owns Bali’s Padang Padang Surf Camp, tells TIME he’s seen a steady stream of tourists coming back to surf the island’s world-class breaks, like the towering waves of Uluwatu. Camp occupancy has been at pre-pandemic occupancy levels for several weeks.

Asia-Pacific travel is a “sleeping dragon that is waking up in stages,” says Ortigera. “Right now the recovery is very uneven, but domestic tourism has picked up, travelers have been attracted to new markets and lesser-known destinations are being promoted.”

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She argues that this is a key moment to move towards a healthier, more sustainable tourism industry – and indeed many see this moment as a chance to eliminate overtourism.

“Overdependence on international tourism and the need for some Asia-Pacific countries to diversify their economies was a problem even before the pandemic,” says Shipani. “Many countries are now doubling down on economic diversification efforts.”

However, frontline tourism workers are pinning their hopes on a speedy recovery. Yen, from Cambodia, plans to return to Angkor Wat to work as a tour guide as soon as he can. “I can earn a lot more as a tour guide than as a teacher,” he says. “I can meet many people from all over the world and get new experiences.”

In Hong Kong, 32-year-old Carrie Poon misses her old life. Before the pandemic, she ran food tours, taking mostly American and European visitors to off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods to try local delicacies like fish balls and rice rolls—even snake soup for the more adventurous. But when Hong Kong closed its borders, she lost her income and decided to open a small restaurant.

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

With reporting by Aidyn Fitzpatrick/Phi Phi, Thailand

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