This was supposed to be the year travel came back. In Europe and Asia, many countries reopened their airports and welcomed tourists. But they are confronting a new reality: Variants such as Omicron are causing global panic, leading governments to shut borders again, and their biggest spenders — Chinese tourists — aren’t returning any time soon.
As part of its effort to maintain a zero-Covid approach, China announced that international flights would be kept at 2.2 percent of pre-Covid levels during the winter. Since August, it has almost entirely stopped issuing new passports, and it has imposed a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals. Returning to China also requires mountains of paperwork and multiple Covid-19 tests.
Many people there have decided to just stay put. The result: Shopping malls have emptied out, restaurants have shut down and hotels are deserted. It’s another blow to an industry that was just starting to recover. The downturn is particularly affecting North and Southeast Asia.
No country has been more crucial to global travel in the past decade than China. Chinese tourists spent roughly $260 billion in 2019, exceeding all other nationalities. Their prolonged absence would mean travel revenues are unlikely to return to prepandemic levels soon.
Analysts say it could take up to two years before China fully reopens.
In Europe, Chinese visitors had emerged as an increasingly important market in recent years. At the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London, for example, about 1,000 people visited per day at its peak, and at least half of them were from China, said Paul Leharne, the museum’s supervisor.
Since its reopening on May 17, the museum has attracted only 10 percent of its usual numbers. This year, it opened an online store to sell merchandise and souvenirs, about a third of which is being shipped to China, he said.
“We really feel their absence,” said Alfonsina Russo, the director of the Colosseum in Rome, referring to Chinese tourists.
In Vietnam, the pandemic has caused over 95 percent of tourism businesses to close or suspend operations, according to the government.
In Bangkok’s Or Tor Kor fruit market, where masses of Chinese tourists would once gather around tables eating durian, business has ground to a halt. Phakamon Thadawatthanachok, a durian seller, said she used to keep 300 to 400 kilograms of the spiky fruit in stock and had to resupply them three to four times a week to keep up with the demand. Now, she had to take a loan just to make ends meet.
“The loss of income is immeasurable,” she said. “At the moment, we are only holding onto the hope that it will get better someday.”