12/07/2021, 16.55
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Omicron variant threatens tourism recovery in Asia

Fearing a new wave of cases like those caused by the Delta variant, many countries in Asia are closing their borders to foreign travellers. Businesses that rely on tourism are now betting everything on local visitors. Asia-Pacific is the only region in the world where regular international air travel has not yet resumed. Above all, the absence of Chinese tourists is impacting the region’s economy.

Milan (AsiaNews/Agencies) – While experts vet the contagiousness and lethality of the omicron variant, reactions to the new strain vary.

Compared to the Delta variant, which caused thousands of deaths during the summer, the new SARS-C0V-2 strain appears to be very infectious but not very lethal.

Nevertheless, last week Japan decided not to take any risks. Local authorities told airlines to stop booking incoming flights until the end of December. Eventually, they backtracked but imposed a ceiling of 3,500 daily arrivals from abroad.

After peaks of over 20,000 new cases during the summer, Japan’s new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took drastic steps to protect the population, even though almost 80 per cent are now fully vaccinated (two shots) and new infections have recently hovered around a hundred a day, with only three cases connected to the Omicron variant.

This has had a devastating impact on local tourism with the number of visitors down from 32 million in 2019 to four million last year.

For some observers, despite the problems associated with the lack of foreign tourists, Japan may be learning to live without tourism revenues. Not so other Asian countries and airlines operating in the region.

According to the International Air Transport Association, Asia-Pacific is the only area in the world that has not seen a revival of international air travel after two years.

By October 2021 the decline reached 92.8 per cent over 2019, almost unchanged from the 93.1 per cent reported in September.

In an effort to cope with a new crisis, Singapore is keeping its borders open after establishing preferential vaccinated travel lanes (VLTs) for visitors from other Asian states.

The imposition of new restrictions and quarantines in neighbouring countries in the wake of Omicron's discovery is shattering hopes for a recovery in the city-state as well.

In 2019, 17 per cent of tourists landing at Singapore Changi International Airport came from China, 13 per cent from Indonesia, 8 per cent from India, and 7 per cent from Australia.

At present, and despite VLTs for visitors from these and other countries, people are just staying away – experts note that this month Changi Airport may not even reach 10 per cent of pre-COVID travel volume.

The lack of tourists from China is the biggest problem for the economies of Southeast Asia (and beyond); in 2019, Chinese visitors spent about US$ 260 billion abroad.

In Vietnam, where the pandemic shut down 95 per cent of tourism-related businesses, Chinese made up 32 per cent of all foreign visitors.

On Jeju Island (South Korea), a popular seaside destination where the Chinese could land without a visa, the number of tourists went from over 1 million in 2019 to 103,000 in 2020. Between January and September of this year, only 5,000 people visited the island.

For the countries that manage to contain the number of infections, the only solution at present seems to be domestic tourism.

Cambodia, which cannot afford a further collapse of its tourism industry, the number of travellers last week-end (4-5 December) rose by 4.65 per cent over the previous weekend, this according to data released by the government. That is over 181,000 tourists, but only 5,000 from abroad.

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“L’Asia: ecco il nostro comune compito per il terzo millennio!” - Giovanni Paolo II, da “Alzatevi, andiamo”