Paradise on pause: Asia-Pacific tourism continues to lag after Covid-induced freeze | Asia Pacific

MAri Kishigawa’s family has been in the tourism industry for decades. In the remote Pacific country of Palau, on an even more remote archipelago, Mari runs the 11-room Carp Island Resort, 30 km by boat from Palau’s commercial center, Koror.

But under canopies of palm trees, fringed by crystal clear water, Mari reevaluates her future.

“If I had had funding, I would have changed my business to home rentals instead of a tourism-related business.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living have taken a toll on his business.

“Even though the border is open, we still have trouble finding customers. Our resort uses a generator for electricity so even without guests I still need money to buy diesel and to bring a speedboat to the island each week – for food, diesel, water essence.

Prior to 2020, Palau averaged 118,000 visitors per year, with tourism being the main contributor to the economy. This year, however, less than 10,000 visitors came, according to the Ministry of Finance.

It’s a pattern that’s being repeated across Asia-Pacific, where governments have struggled to reverse the sharp drop in visitor numbers caused by the pandemic. Hopes are high that tourists will return over the holiday season, but cost-of-living concerns and China’s strict zero Covid policy threaten to derail progress.

Visitor arrivals are slow to rebound

International arrivals and hotel occupancy rates in the region are still far behind their pre-pandemic levels, despite European hotspots like France and Greece seeing high visitor volumes over the past summer in the northern hemisphere.

The tourism industry in some countries has been hampered by restrictive Covid-19 measures which have only been lifted in recent months.

Locals and tourists pass each other at Tokyo's famous Shibuya Junction
Japan is hoping to attract billions of dollars in tourism spending after more than two years of travel bans due to Covid-19. Photography: Taidgh Barron/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

The Japanese government is aiming to attract 5 billion yen ($34.5 billion) in annual tourism spending after restoring visa-free travel to dozens of countries in October. However, analysts predict spending by foreign visitors will only reach 2.1 trillion yen ($14 billion) by 2023 and not exceed pre-Covid levels until 2025.

Even in countries that lifted Covid-19 restrictions early, visitor numbers are still far below what they once were.

Thailand began reopening its borders in November 2021, hoping to attract 15 million visitors in 2022. It has since revised those numbers downward: tourist arrivals this year are expected to be closer to 10 million, against nearly 40 million visitors in 2019.

The Indonesian island of Bali is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, but its number of visitors is still far lower than before the pandemic. In August 2022, 276,000 foreign tourists arrived in Bali; this is to be compared to 606,000 during the same month in 2019.

Figures like these are at odds with some European destinations which have seen business rebound over the northern hemisphere summer. In July and August of this year, French hotel occupancy rates were actually higher than the levels recorded in the same month in 2019.

Monthly visitor arrivals to Australia are still around a million below their pre-pandemic peak, but as the weather gets warmer in the Southern Hemisphere, Tourism and Transport Forum Australia CEO Margy Osmond is expect a busier 2023.

“Our region has certainly taken longer to recover than Europe on the international tourism front. We have had stricter travel restrictions for longer than in the northern hemisphere. »

“Another important driver of the recovery has been restrictions on travel to China, which has traditionally been a major source market for many destinations in Asia and Australia. However, we need to continue to take advantage of other markets like the India to fill that void in the meantime.”

A diver swims off Palau
Palau’s tourism sector has been hit hard by declining arrivals from China. Photography: Global_Pics/Getty Images

Pacific countries are counting the cost

In Palau, the decline in visitors from China has been devastating. In 2019, Chinese travelers accounted for around a third of all visitor arrivals. This year, only 57 Chinese nationals have arrived. While health officials in China recently announced they would “unwaveringly” stick to the zero-Covid policy – making international travel nearly impossible – the outlook for Palau’s tourism sector remains bleak.

Ron Leidich, founder and director of kayak tour operator Paddling Palau, is candid in his assessment: “The mainland China market no longer exists.

“The Taiwanese market will start to come back later this month and the Japanese are filtering in small numbers. So, I think if we look broadly … at Palau’s tourism market, it’s still going to be a slow gradual recovery.

However, Ron is able to find blue skies among the clouds. Although Covid-19 harmed the local tourism industry, it was a big win for the environment.

“I’ve been here for three decades and I’ve never seen such a vibrant Palau environment as I see it right now,” he says. “But as a tour operator, financially, it’s been a real kick in the ass.”

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