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Asian countries hammered by coronavirus keeping millions of Chinese tourists away

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The beach chairs lie empty on the fine white sand. The cavernous seafood restaurants are dark, a few crustaceans floating lazily in their tanks. Hotels are sending employees home without pay and golf courses might soon do the same.

The coronavirus has decimated tourism in Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia, spreading economic pain across a region that had expected 2020 to be another year of robust growth.

Businesses in Vietnam are seeing mass cancellations as virus-related travel restrictions bite. The government has warned of $5.9 billion to $7.7 billion in losses through April — and no telling what happens after that.

“It’s gone from everything to nothing,” said Mark Wyndham, a 44-year-old Australian who operates a motorcycle tour business here along Vietnam’s sun-splashed central coast.

Da Nang’s beaches, golf resorts and casinos have been a magnet for visitors from China and South Korea, who made up more than half of Vietnam’s 18 million tourists in 2019. Their numbers have collapsed as the two countries grapple with the largest outbreaks of the coronavirus, which has sickened more than 80,000 in China and nearly 5,000 in South Korea.

It is a similar story across much of the world as the disease known as COVID-19 hopscotches from Iran to Italy to Washington state, prompting an ever widening web of travel restrictions, flight bans and canceled trips.

“This year is going to be a pretty bad year for the tourism sector and all the ancillaries that are attached to it,” said Anwita Basu, head of country risk research for Asia at Fitch Solutions. “And a lot of the travel bans we think will last for a much longer period of time than the risk of the contagion itself.”

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A tourist walks through a nearly empty Chinatown in Bangkok, Thailand.

(Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

The downturn will particularly affect the emerging markets of Southeast Asia, where tourism has helped drive a decade of world-leading economic growth. In Laos and Thailand, tourism accounts for more than 12% of the entire economic output, according to Fitch.

In Bangkok, food markets and temples are deserted. Conventions and exhibitions in Singapore — a $1.6-billion industry — have been called off. On the Indonesian island of Bali, hoteliers and villa owners reported tens of thousands of cancellations.

“People don’t want to come to Asia at the moment,” said Trent Davies, an advisor in Vietnam at Dezan Shira & Associates, a business consultancy.

No country has been more important for Asian — and global — travel in recent years than China, which sent some 170 million travelers overseas last year, more than three times as many a decade earlier, according to the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, or COTRI. In 2018, travelers from China spent $277 billion abroad, more than the combined total of the next two countries, the U.S. and Germany.

When China banned tour groups from leaving the country to keep from spreading the virus, it was as if the world’s biggest tourism spender suddenly closed its pocketbook.

For a lot of small companies in Thailand and Vietnam this will be disastrous,” said Wolfgang Georg Arlt, the chief executive of COTRI. “A lot of souvenir shops, small restaurants, taxi drivers, pickpockets, prostitutes — many of them will go bust.”

The impact of Chinese visitors is clear in Da Nang, once a nondescript beach town between the former imperial city of Hue and the picturesque canals and lantern-filled lanes of ancient Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Casinos and Cantonese restaurants have sprouted across the city. Massage parlors and souvenir gem shops beckon with signs printed in Chinese.

At Gyumaru, a 12-table Japanese restaurant serving steaks and craft beers to predominantly East Asian clientele, only four diners came through the doors one day last week, said manager Tuyen Tran. The staff’s hours had been cut in half, and within a few days she expected that two of the kitchen’s three chefs would be let go.

“We really don’t have any choice,” said the 20-year-old Tran, who added that the restaurant had no bookings for the next several days and was surviving on a few online orders.

“It’s sad to see this happen to our staff,” she said. “Some of them are students who work part-time to pay their tuition. We are trying just to hold on and hopefully it will get better.”

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Workers disinfect a Vietnam Airlines plane to guard against coronavirus at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi.

(Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images)

At the 770-room beachfront Crowne Plaza Danang, part of the international IHG hotel chain and owned by a Chinese investor, the only guests last week were a handful of well-off Chinese families that had been on vacation for Lunar New Year when the travel restrictions hit — and opted to stay.

One family milled about the empty lobby, their toddler’s cries echoing under the vaulted hardwood ceiling. A pair of hotel employees wiped down and dusted cafe tables that appeared not to have been used in days.

Anna Tren, the assistant front office manager, said most employees had gone on leave, but that if things didn’t improve soon, the hotel might start sending some home without pay.

“Maybe we will lose our jobs,” said Tren, who is eight months pregnant. “More than 90% of our guests are from China, so we are worried.”

Vietnam said this week it would roll out a $1.16-billion stimulus package to help businesses recover from the epidemic. Governments in South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia are among those that have announced or are considering similar measures.

Vietnamese authorities moved quickly to ban flights from China and from virus-affected areas of South Korea, and the measures appear to have helped the country avoid a major epidemic: All 16 patients infected with COVID-19 have recovered, the government says.

But the virus’ spread to Europe and North America dashed hopes that tourists from other regions might soon resume travel.

Wyndham, who began offering motorcycle tours a decade ago and has large numbers of European and Australian clients, said a group of Italian guests canceled bookings worth $30,000 after the outbreak in their country, because they feared they would be denied visas to Vietnam.

“If you have a Korean- or Chinese-focused tour business, you’re taking the hit now,” Wyndham said. “I’ve got a horrible feeling that our hit is about to come.”



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