By LAURIE KELLMANAssociated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — At a tourism conference in Phuket last month, Thailand’s prime minister looked at attendees and posed a question with a predictable answer.
“Are you ready?” asked Prayuth Chan-ocha, dramatically removing his mask and launching what is expected to be the country’s economic reset after more than two years of coronavirus-driven restrictions. When the crowd shouted his answer, he yes, according to local media, he could have been speaking for the entire pandemic-stricken world.
But a full recovery could take as long as the catastrophe itself, according to projections and Associated Press interviews in 11 countries in June. They suggest that the expected bounce is less like a definitive bounce, and more like a bumpy road out of a deep, dark cave.
Some places, like the French Riviera and the US Midwest, are contributing to the rise more than others, like closed, “zero-COVID” China, which before the pandemic was the world’s leading source of tourists and their spending.
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The human urge to get out and explore is helping fuel the rise, filling flights and museums despite rising coronavirus infections and inflation. But economic urgency is the real driver of an industry worth $3.5 trillion in 2019 that, according to United Nations estimates, lost that much during the pandemic. According to some estimates, tourism provides work for one in 10 people on Earth.
Many places, particularly those that have relaxed safety requirements, are seeing what passes for a summer full of sunny optimism and adventure.
“They say it’s the summer of revenge travel,” said Theresa Starta, 52, of Pittsburgh, as she gazed across one of Amsterdam’s canals at the throngs of the Dutch capital. “Everything seems so bad all over the world, so it’s good to see some things coming back.”
“The road to full recovery is very long, but at least we are back,” said Sanga Ruangwattanakul, president of the Khao San Road Business Association in Bangkok.
Despite the roaring return of travellers, challenges and uncertainty cast a shadow over the post-pandemic landscape. Full recoveries are not generally expected until at least 2024. Concerns revolved around a long list of issues, including inflation, supply chain issues, rising infection rates and shortages of hand working.
Before June was out, chaos had come to define travel in the summer of 2022. Airports and airlines that had cut back during the worst of the pandemic struggled to meet demand, resulting in canceled flights, baggage lost and other assorted nightmares. Scared tourists have booked trips less in advance, making it harder for hotels, tour operators and others to plan, industry experts said.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine also added risk to the uneven recovery and contributed to inflation, a factor that could become a major headwind even as the pain of another pandemic recedes.
“What’s really worrying is the fall season,” said Sandra Carvao, head of market intelligence and competitiveness at the United Nations World Tourism Organization. If inflation continues to rise, particularly interest rates, “families will have to rethink their spending.”
Despite all the travel restrictions lifted due to the virus, security is likely to continue to be a concern.
“The most important thing for people when they decide to go on vacation is health and safety. It always has been,” said Simon Hudson, a tourism professor at the University of South Carolina who is writing a book on recovering from the pandemic. “This is going to take a while.”
Starting with the bright spots, the UN reported that during the first quarter of 2022, international arrivals nearly tripled from the same three months last year. March this year produced the healthiest results since the start of the pandemic, with arrivals rising to nearly 50% of 2019 levels. That could rise to 70% of 2019 arrivals by the end of this year, he said. UNWTO in the projections it revised in May.
That has produced encouraging signs in places, from Israel to the United States, Italy, Mexico and France. Reboots like the one in Thailand are all the rage. Big plans for 2023 are in the offing in the US, like a cruise with some of Broadway’s biggest stars.
Those projections are being played out on the ground, usually in places that had aggressive, snappy restrictions from the start and adapted by lifting a lot of protections as vaccines ramped up and the omicron variant proved less lethal than other variants.
Foreign tourists are flocking to places like the French Riviera, where supply chain problems are making everything more expensive, including champagne, a restaurateur said.
“It’s been summer here since spring, every night,” said Elie Dagher, manager of La Villa Massenet in Nice. Since April, he said, the bistro has been packed with visitors from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, but especially from the United Kingdom and the United States.
In Branson, Missouri, known for its country music shows and outdoor attractions, there’s no need to recover. It received a record 10 million visitors last year and appears on track to surpass that, said Lynn Berry, a spokeswoman for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Jeff Johnson, co-owner of adventure park Shepherd of the Hills, puts it down to a brief closure in 2020, a loyal customer base hailing from nearby states and cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. “When we reopened,” he said, “it never slowed down.”
In Italy, tourists, especially from the United States, returned this year in droves. The run-up to Easter was especially notable in Rome, reflecting pent-up demand to visit perennial star sites like the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum.
“There is a great yearning to travel, like taking a (cork) out of a bottle,” said Bernabò Bocca, president of the national association of Federalberghi hotels. At the time that Italy relaxed security measures in April, “a tsunami of reserves came from the United States. United at a speed never seen before.”
Hopes are also high for Thailand, following its announcement last month that the country would scrap virtually all requirements other than proof of vaccination or, failing that, a negative coronavirus test.
The return of tourists has already breathed new life into local tourism. Bangkok’s famous backpacker street, Khao San Road, almost deserted last year, receives up to 5,000 visitors a day, promising figures but a far cry from the 30,000 daily visitors before the pandemic, according to Ruangwattanakul, president of the business association.
Thailand is an instructive look at the fight for recovery, with China as the main factor. By 2019, Chinese tourists accounted for a quarter of foreign arrivals in Thailand, but there is no sign of them returning in such numbers.
The uneven nature of the post-pandemic rise could be seen from Israel to India.
“I think we are moving in the right direction,” said restaurant owner Vaibhav Khulbe in Dharmsala, India, where 4 million visitors are expected in the country this year, compared to 11 million in 2019.
As in other parts of the world, Israel is struggling to match its tourism record from 2019, when 4.5 million people visited. Despite lifting all restrictions, Israel expects less than half, about 2 million visitors, this year, Tourism Ministry officials say. Adding to the other concerns, political infighting is an issue after a wave of deadly Palestinian violence inside Israel in the spring, coupled with the collapse of the government last month.
Still, the ministry reports a steady, albeit gradual, increase. An unusual convergence of religious spring festivities for Jews, Christians and Muslims helped boost visitors in April. By May, the number of visitors had increased to about 57% from the same month two years earlier.
But the recovery has been uneven for many, particularly in the occupied West Bank.
“We really expected more people to come at least this month, like May, June, but it’s still very slow,” said Wisam Salsaa, manager of The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, the historic old town where President Joe Biden is expected to visit. visit in July during a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Designed by London artist Banksy and bursting with color, the hotel is well-known and locally run, but it’s struggling. It physically expanded during the pandemic but has been forced to cut its staff from about 50 people to 32 now. In June, its occupancy rate was around 30%.
“Tourism here,” Salsaa said, “is very fragile.”
The following Associated Press journalists contributed to this story: Barbara Surk in Nice, France; Joey Capelletti in Chicago, Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Fanuel Morelli in Rome, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala, India, Jim Salter in St. Louis, Mark Stevenson and Maria Verza in City of Mexico and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok. Follow Jerusalem-based AP journalist Laurie Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman
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