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‘Come back soon’: coronavirus wreaks havoc on global tourism hotspots | World news

Most February evenings, it’s a struggle to push through the crowds to get to Yanakawee Srialam’s souvenir stall in Bangkok’s Ratchada Train night market. It’s peak tourism season and the market’s alleyways would normally be heaving with visitors.

But Chinese tourists, the vast majority of Srialam’s usual customers, have all but disappeared. His best-selling items now include disposable face masks, which have surpassed sales of souvenirs such as pad Thai fridge magnets.

China has stopped all outbound tour groups from leaving the country in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus and encouraged citizens to reconsider travelling abroad. International airlines have suspended tens of thousands of trips to and from mainland China. For countries such as Thailand – whose tourism sector depends heavily on Chinese travellers – it’s a huge blow.

Visitor numbers have plummeted, with hotel bookings and guided tours cancelled. On the resort island of Phuket, the professional guide association warned last week that 3,000 Chinese-speaking tour guides are out of work and need financial support.

Last year, 11 million Chinese people visited Thailand– a number that is expected to fall by 2 million this year.

In Ratchada Train night market, stallholders are anxiously hoping that business will soon recover. “Our tourism depends on welcoming the Chinese,” says Srialam, whose profits are down by 70%.

In the market’s food section, Kittisuk Wongtaraloesakul says he has been forced to cut some staff members’ hours, and that two employees have chosen to leave. “Customers have decreased 10 fold,” he says. “[I] will only last a month with this traffic. I just want to break even, to keep it running.” His stall, Paomaemloie, which serves stir fry dishes and the popular “volcano pork rib soup”, is especially popular with Chinese customers, he says, but on some nights over recent weeks it has been empty.

The outbreak has wreaked havoc across the global tourism industry, which has become increasingly reliant on Chinese visitors. The number of Chinese people going abroad grew rapidly to 150 million in 2018, and operators have responded by designing packages specifically aimed at them.

Ratchada Train night market in February 2018, when it was much busier.

Ratchada Train night market in February 2018, when it was much busier. Photograph: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Italy’s national hotel association, Federalberghi, has said the country – the most popular destination for Chinese visitors to Europe, recording 3.5 million in 2019 – could lose billions of euros as Chinese tourists cancel hotel bookings amid a flight ban. Ignazio Visco, the chief of the Bank of Italy, has also warned that the coronavirus outbreak could seriously affect the country’s already weak economy.

Tourist bookings to Venice, already suffering a decline in visitor numbers since the city was hit by extreme flooding in November, fell by 30% compared with last year ahead of its annual carnival, which got under way over the weekend.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area. 

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

“A temporary ban on arrivals is manageable,” said Bernabò Bocca, the president of the Venice hotel association. “But if coronavirus discourages the Americans from travelling, it would mean trouble for Italy. The potential damage from a prolonged crisis could reach €4.5bn.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people on a luxury cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, remain stuck in quarantine off the coast of Japan. Passengers have mostly been confined to their cabins to stop the spread of the virus, which has so far reportedly infected 136 people.

A tourist wears a protective face mask in Venice.

A tourist wears a protective face mask in Venice. Photograph: Manuel Silvestri/Reuters

The impact of the outbreak on the global tourism market is unknown, but it’s expected that Thailand, Japan and other nearby destinations will be among those hardest hit. Officials warn that an outbreak in one of Thailand’s tourist hotspots is possible.

In Bangkok, anti-bacterial gels are offered in shops while one of the luxury malls has begun taking customers’ temperatures. Masks were already worn by many because of the heavy pollution, but have now become even more common. Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, has previously said that “farang” tourists, a sometimes dismissive term for westerners, should be kicked out of the country if they do not wear a mask.

At Ratchada market, Radek Slepowronski and Margaret Ciszkowska, from Poland, said they were taking precautions but were not overly concerned. “In crowded places, on planes, buses, we wear masks, we wash our hands, we disinfect them,” said Ciszkowska. “But we’re not scared about it,” added Slepowronski.

For others, who have traveled from Japan, Hong Kong or who have not been able to return home to mainland China, Thailand feels a safe place to be. Anthony James, who is from the UK but lived for nine years in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, left the city to go travelling shortly before it was placed under lockdown. He has not experienced any symptoms.

“I feel a lot safer being here than back there. In the grand scheme of things the number [of cases] in Thailand is minimal compared with back home,” he says.

The handful of westerners visiting the market were little consolation to stallholders. “There are a few westerners coming, but westerners are not big spenders,” says Srialam. “It’s hard to make sales to them, they negotiate very strongly.” Chinese tourists, he says, are the most important for business.

At Wongtaraloesakul’s food stall, a sign reads “jiāyóu China, jiāyóu Wuhan”, which translates literally as “add oil”, meaning “keep up the fight”. His message to China is to get well soon: “Come back soon. We are waiting.”

Additional reporting by Angela Giuffrida in Rome

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