“It is a very important humanitarian issue,” states Niall Gibbons. An economic bounce-back like the SARS pandemic of 2003-2004 (600%) is inevitable. Whilst the words of Tourism Ireland’s CEO ring largely true, and the current situation will undoubtedly pass, they also seemingly underplay the relationship and significance of the virus’s economic impact on those countries for whom tourism and a steady, continuous flow of foreign visitors, is critical.
It is difficult to grasp this fact however, without having seen the aerial and satellite photographs of once densely populated tourist spots, courtesy of Reuters. Mecca, Tiananmen Square, and Disneyland Tokyo, just to name a few, have had their number of foreign visitors erased to an insignificant amount; a one to a zero. The wide selection of varying destinations provided above is significant, because behind these images, and underneath official statistics, are real lives being impacted across the world.
France, for example, has lost an estimated 2.3 billion Euros (£2 billion) following the nationwide lockdown, and seen a fall of visiting tourists by 40%, most of whom are from China, according to the figures from March 2020. Nearby, high unemployment rates in the industry stalk the workers of Venice, which has a projected fall of 4.6 million foreign arrivals, adding significantly to the overall projection for Italy, which stands at 28.5 million. Although unwelcomed, these hits are largely unthreatening to their respective economies as it is expected that the impact of a fall in visiting tourists will be covered by other aspects of the economy, and that numbers will swiftly recover once the lockdown ends, and international travel on a large scale can resume.
Gibbon’s prophecy of a worldwide revival to the tourism industry, however, seemingly ignores the reality and scale of the global pandemic, and crucially, the ensuing problems that face many developing South-East Asian countries for whom tourism is one of their principle means of income. The statistics, unfortunately, speak for themselves.
Over the past 25 years nations such as Thailand have suffered a string of both natural and manmade disasters, beginning with the 1997 economic crash, and culminating in the more recent 2014 political coup led by Prayut Chan-o-cha, which has left the nation reliant on a strong and stable tourism sector to make up for a failing manufacturing industry. The result: tourism contributes to over a fifth of Thailand’s national income, generating close to £46 billion from approximately 39 million foreign visitors; for comparison, tourism contributes only 0.9 % to Ireland’s GDP.
Of course, the pandemic has placed considerable strain on Thailand’s economy, with the continued national lockdown risking 25,000 tour guide jobs alone, with many others to follow suit. At the moment, attempts to recover and deal with the current situation have not been seriously considered by Thailand’s government, yet moves to relax quarantine measures for incoming foreign visitors, which currently stands at a minimum two weeks quarantine for all incoming flights, have been seriously considered as recently as March.
Whether or not this move will be a success is difficult to predict and yet to be seen, but one gets the impression that, as other nations contemplate the undoubtedly risky move of opening up their respective countries and economies again (the United States, Spain and Germany to name a handful) that other, developing nations will feel pressured to do the same.
The tourism industry has played a significant role in the revitalization of developing economies across the world, but as the scale of Covid-19 grows and continues to impact the industry across the world, the possibility of reopening borders and thus relaxing quarantining measures is proving all the more tantalising. Only time will tell if the risks will be worth it.