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Commentary: Tourism in Asia takes a beating after Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

The timing could not be worse. The coronavirus outbreak occurring during the Chinese Lunar New Year, one of the biggest travel seasons in Asia, says Lisa Wan.

Commentary: Tourism in Asia takes a beating after Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

Chinese tourists wearing face masks watch a traditional Thai dance at Erawan shrine, a popular landmark in Bangkok. (Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov)

HONG KONG: The novel coronavirus outbreak has killed hundreds and infected more than 14,000 in China within the last two months. 

At least 15 cities in China are locked down, accounting for a population of over 50 million people. 

Given the virus continues to spread worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern on Friday (Jan 31).

More countries, including the US, UK, and Canada, have warned against nonessential travel to China as well as established travel restrictions to tourists 

Among many, Singapore has also blocked the entry of tourists who had visited Hubei province in the past 14 days, or who hold passports issued in the province, and just these past few days, widened these restrictions to all visitors with recent travel history to China. Malaysia has also stopped issuing visas to Chinese travellers from Hubei.


The tourism industry – which include hotels, airlines, casinos and restaurants - is expected to suffer massively during the outbreak. 

For example, officials in Thailand estimate potential lost revenue at 50 billion baht (US$1.6 billion) around Lunar New Year this year.

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Thailand's Itthipat Buranatanyarat was one of several players who donned a face mask to play in the Panasonic Open India golf tournament. (Photo: AFP/Paul LAKATOS)

The timing could not be worse. The coronavirus outbreak occurring during the Chinese Lunar New Year, one of the biggest travel seasons in Asia, when hundreds of millions of Chinese return to homes or take holidays, both domestically and internationally.

The tourism industries in China and key countries that rely on Chinese tourists will suffer the most immediate repercussions.

According to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, 6.3 million Chinese tourists travel abroad during the 2019 Lunar New Year holiday, generating travel revenue of around 513.9 billion yuan (US$73 billion).

Before the outbreak, the Institute predicted 7 million Chinese tourists would travel abroad during the Lunar New Year this year. Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan are top favourite travel destinations.

Chinese visitors make up the largest source market of Hong Kong, accounting for around 78 per cent (around 44 million) of the total number of visitor arrivals in Hong Kong for the entire 2019 (of 56 million).

On the one hand, Hong Kong’s appeal to Chinese tourists has already been weakened by months of political protests, with inbound tourism already down 56 per cent from a year earlier.

But with the coronavirus outbreak, Hong Kong has now suspended flights and train services to Wuhan and cancelled all Lunar New Year celebrations.

The Hong Kong Marathon, originally scheduled for early February, had also been called off. Hong Kong airlines are cutting the number of their flights to the mainland by about half through the end of March in response to government virus-control efforts. 

All these additional virus-control policies will hit the Hong Kong tourism industry harder.

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The number of Chinese visitors to Japan has also exploded from around 450,000 in 2003 to 8.4 million in 2018, accounting for 27 per cent of all inbound tourists.

Chinese tourists are also big spenders in many other cities, like London, Paris and New York. For example, China remains the fifth-largest source of foreign tourism to the US, behind Canada, Mexico, the UK and Japan.

Around 3 million Chinese tourists also travelled to the US in 2018, spending more than US$36 billion.

Chinese tourists pose on a beach at an island in Phang-Nga province, Thailand January 30, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Juarawee Kittisilpa)

The novel coronavirus has now infected more people in China than the SARS outbreak in 2003. The number of confirmed cases has jumped to more than 14,000, surpassing the 5,329 in China from SARS.

According to the International Monetary Fund, China accounted for 4.3 per cent of world economic output in 2003, and this number jumped to 16.3 per cent last year. 

In other words, the novel coronavirus will affect the world economy more significantly when compared to the SARS outbreak. 


That the novel coronavirus happened during the midst of the Chinese Lunar New Year period shows why tourism is one way in which the virus spread rather quickly.

Aside from the imposition of travel restrictions on travellers from Hubei or China more largely, countries must screen all travellers from other countries just as thoroughly.

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The new coronavirus is able to transfer from one person to another, so crowded tourist attractions and closed spaces in planes definitely will speed up its spread.

All but one reported death from the outbreak have so far occurred in China, but travellers have spread the virus to numerous other places.

Cases have been confirmed in numerous countries including Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, the US and Vietnam.

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Chinese visitors make up 37 percent of all Japan's inbound tourists and the virus outbreak is likely to affect a range of local businesses. (Photo: AFP/CHARLY TRIBALLEAU)

One typical example is the first case of virus in Japan. The infected Japanese driver drove tour buses for Chinese groups from Wuhan in January, ferrying them from Osaka to Tokyo and back. 

He is believed to be the first case of the virus in Japan not linked to recent travel to China but was likely to have contracted the infection through while in confined spaces in the tour bus.

A scientific paper published on Jan 14 in the Journal of Travel Medicine examined the potential for the international spread of the Wuhan coronavirus via commercial air travel.

It identified the top 20 destination cities with regard to passengers arriving from Wuhan, using International Air Transport Association data from January to March 2018. 

Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Taipei welcomed the most arrivals at 41,080, 23,707, 20,001, and 17,645 respectively. 

All have identified cases of the coronavirus, although several of Hong Kong’s cases are known to have entered the city via the high-speed railway rather than on a plane.

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Professor Lisa Wan researches on tourism at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Department of Marketing.

Source: CNA/sl


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