May 18, 2020 - World

Paradise and the pandemic: Tourist hotspots hope summer travel heats up

An island of empty chairs. Photo: Cedrick Isham Calvados/AFP via Getty Images

Tourist hotspots around the world face a daunting challenge: how to bring in much-needed visitors while keeping COVID-19 out.

Why it matters: As the summer season heats up in the Northern Hemisphere, that’s a multitrillion-dollar question.

Paradise and the pandemic

Few places on Earth are more dependent on international arrivals than Aruba, where tourism accounted for 86% of GDP in 2018.

  • Live videos showed sunny if blustery weather on beaches there this afternoon, but they were entirely devoid of people.
  • Aruba has been closed to foreigners since March 16, and a shelter-in-place order is in effect, along with a curfew. There are currently just five active cases of COVID-19, with no new infections recorded for over a week.
  • That will be hard to maintain once the island reopens to visitors. That's scheduled to happen between June 15 and July 1, though some locals are understandably wary.

Antigua and Barbuda has set a more precise date. A flight from Miami on June 4 will be the first international arrival in 10 weeks. Flights from New York are expected to resume later in the summer.

  • A proposal the government is considering would force travelers to undergo a COVID-19 test before arriving at the airport and then restrict them to their resorts (including beaches) for the duration of their stay.
  • Hotel staff would be tested before returning to work and live on the property to avoid bringing infections in, Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the Miami Herald.
  • Some protocols are still in development, including how to move people swiftly through the airport without unnecessary crowding.

Zoom out: Most Caribbean islands have seen relatively few cases of COVID-19, meaning the main concern is keeping infections out.

  • However, the Dominican Republic has the largest outbreak in the Caribbean, with 428 deaths to date.
  • Last June and July, the country welcomed around 150,000 visitors per week. This year, it’s unclear when that number will tick up from approximately zero.
  • Tourism Minister Francisco Javier García said on Friday that travel protocols would be ready “in a month,” after which international arrivals would be allowed into less-affected areas, according to local media.
  • But even as supply returns, it's unclear when demand will follow.

What to watch: In the Caribbean, disaster is always just a hurricane away. But little international aid has flowed to this most-tourism dependent of regions during the current crisis.

  • Only Haiti was covered by an IMF plan for the world’s poorest countries. Others are too wealthy, on paper at least, mainly because of the tourism revenues that have now evaporated.
  • Caribbean islands can’t afford to simply wait out this storm. But it may prove impossible to bring tourists in and keep COVID-19 out.
Mykonos has gone quiet. Photo: Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty Images

Leaving lockdown, not Europe

Summer holidays are sacrosanct in Europe, and Brussels has joined national governments in issuing assurances that they will not be sacrificed to COVID-19.

The big picture: Europe is home to three of the world's five most-visited countries (France, Spain and Italy) and an outsized proportion of international travelers.

"Our message is we will have a tourist season this summer," EU economic affairs commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said last week, "even if it's with security measures and limitations."

  • France is easing out of a lockdown that has seen 95% of hotels shuttered, and the government says domestic vacations will be allowed in July and August.
  • Italy is now opening up travel between regions and will allow visitors from elsewhere in the EU beginning on June 3.
  • Campsites in the U.K. are reporting increased bookings, meanwhile, as Brits come to terms with the lack of international options.

Greece has had far fewer COVID-19 cases than the big western European destinations, and it's particularly reliant on tourism.

  • Hotels on sun-soaked islands are spacing out their beach umbrellas and reducing occupancy by 50% to comply with new regulations.
  • But unless bookings ramp up quickly, some may not survive long enough to greet the first arrivals in early July, per the FT.

For now, several countries have made travel pacts with neighbors without opening their doors more widely.

  • A new "Baltic bubble" permits travel between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, mirroring the planned Australia-New Zealand zone. Croatia and Slovenia reached a similar agreement.
  • But the U.K. government backtracked after floating a quarantine-free travel arrangement with France, and Sweden objected to a proposal that would see Denmark open its borders to Germans before Swedes.
Bangkok is opening up. But probably not for you. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

Who gets an invitation?

Thailand is also considering which tourists to allow in, and when.

Why it matters: Thailand has shot up the global tourism rankings in recent years, making it the ninth most-visited country in the world and the second-most tourism-reliant of the world's 50 largest economies, according to the World Bank.

Traditional dancers have returned to the streets donning face shields, while hotels are training employees in hospital-style deep cleaning, the FT's John Reed reports from Bangkok.

  • Reception areas have been reconfigured to keep guests apart, and high-end restaurants are considering how to ensure hygiene without killing the mood.

Where things stand: Tourism in Thailand is expected to drop by up to 75% from last year's record high. It's expected to resume in three phases, Reed reports.

  • First, those already in Thailand will be allowed to move between provinces.
  • Next, international travel will begin from select countries with well-contained outbreaks, potentially including South Korea and China.
  • Americans and Europeans aren't expected to be welcome until late-2020.

What to watch: Countries will feel far more comfortable once they can reliably verify that incoming travelers aren't COVID-19 positive.

  • In Japan and Hong Kong, new arrivals are tested and remain in the airport until their results come in.
  • Iceland will allow visitors to choose between a test and a two-week quarantine, beginning June 15.
  • A pilot program in Taiwan will see 500 travelers from San Francisco tested every two days to determine whether a shorter quarantine period can be equally safe.
Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The view from the U.S.

The COVID-19 recession will likely hit tourism-reliant states like Hawaii and Nevada worst of all, Axios' Courtenay Brown reports:

  • "I'm only really booking now for very advanced bookings," for late this year and next year, Bruce Fisher, who has owned Hawaii Aloha Travel for 20 years, tells Axios.
  • One-third of Hawaii's workforce has applied for jobless aid since the shutdown, among the worst rates in the nation.
  • The Brookings Institution forecasts lasting economic repercussions for cities like Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Maui.

Even for consumers willing to take a vacation, companies and states plan to purposely choke demand — by capping crowds — for safety reasons.

  • MGM Resorts said it plans to reopen with only 25% of its rooms available for booking; Caesars Palace will deactivate every other slot machine and allow half as many players at its blackjack tables.
  • Fisher also operates a local tour bus company and expects it to go under: "Are people really going to want to get on a tour bus with strangers?"

By the numbers: Foreigners spent $256 billion on travel to the U.S. in 2018, three times the total in any other country.

  • This year, would-be tourists will likely spend less on travel — and spend it closer to home.

The bottom line: "Normal" looks just about impossible for tourism in 2020. But after lockdown, any trip at all may feel like a dream vacation.

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