May 18, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Hello and welcome back to Axios World!

  • After weeks of writing about lockdowns, tonight's focus is travel. I hope you enjoy the trip (1,777 words, 6.5 minutes). New arrivals can sign up here.
  • Heads up: Axios Science is back! Alison Snyder will be delving into biomedicine, public health, emerging technologies and more every Thursday. Subscribe here
1 big thing: Paradise and the pandemic

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.

Zoom in: 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’s borders have 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.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, the future is more uncertain. I chatted with a virtual assistant on the official Bahamas tourism website today and was told Americans would be able to visit beginning May 30 “unless otherwise noted.”

  • I asked about additional screenings and precautions and was told there were none “at this time.”
  • I appreciated that the assistant repeatedly urged me to enjoy my (theoretical) visit, but noted that she could offer little clarity as to what it might look like.

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.

The bottom line: 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.

2. Leaving lockdown, but not Europe

Mykonos has gone quiet. Photo: Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty Images

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.
3. Who gets invited?

Bangkok is opening up. But probably not for you. Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

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.
4. The view from the USA

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

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.

Go deeper

Bonus: Data du jour

In 2019, Germans were twice as likely to prefer a close partnership with the U.S. (50%) as China (24%). That gap is gone (U.S. 37%, China 36%), according to a collaboration between Pew Research and Körber-Stiftung in Germany.

Why it matters: Perceptions of the world's two biggest powers could be shifting in profound ways during the coronavirus pandemic.

  • Asked for their most important foreign policy partner, Germans are far more likely to pick France (44%) than the U.S. (10%) or China (6%).
  • Among Americans, the U.K. (26%) ranks first, followed by China (18%), Canada (10%), Germany (6%), Mexico (4%) and Russia (4%)
5. Scoop: WHO invited Trump and Xi. Only one said yes

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Trump declined an invitation to address a virtual gathering of the World Health Organization, which proceeded today with addresses from several world leaders but only a blistering rebuke from the U.S, Axios Jonathan Swan scoops.

The big picture: Trump has excoriated the WHO, saying it's kowtowing to China, and he's frozen U.S. funding for the global health agency.

  • "The WHO wanted to bring these two leaders together, the biggest economies in the world, at a time when they are being cold to each other, and try to create some sense of solidarity," a source familiar with the situation said.
  • Xi accepted the invitation. China's president delivered a virtual speech in which he pledged $2 billion in coronavirus aid to the worldwide response.
  • Other world leaders who addressed today's gathering included Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Emmanuel Macron.

The U.S.' only contribution was a short and brutal one.

  • Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar gave a blistering speech attacking the WHO. Azar said the WHO failed to obtain the information the world needed about COVID-19, "and that failure cost many lives."

Go deeper

6. What I'm reading: Iran after Khamenei

Who'll be in the chair, when he's in the frame? Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Iran is among the contenders for worst government response to COVID-19, as Dexter Filkins lays bare in the New Yorker.

  • Doctors were denied protective gear and ordered to hush up the outbreak to maintain calm. Journalists couldn't touch the story. Direct flights continued from Wuhan so as not to anger China.
  • There were secret mass graves, deadly prison riots and wild claims from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of an American bioweapon.
  • “We were burying three to four to five times as many people as the ministry of health was reporting,” a doctor told Filkins.

The big picture: Before the virus, there was the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger jet amid escalation with the U.S., and the brutal suppression of mass protests. Discontent with the regime is palpable.

Reporting from Iran, Filkins explores the vulnerabilities of the regime and what might happen when Khamenei, 81, dies.

  • Flashback: Khamenei took power in 1989 as something of a dark horse, and he empowered the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to strengthen his hold on power.
  • Now, "Khamenei knows that without the I.R.G.C. he’d be out of a job in twenty-four hours," Abbas Milani of Stanford tells Filkins.

What to watch: Should Khamenei die, the task of anointing a successor will fall to an aging Assembly of Experts.

  • The supreme leader might try to position his son, Mojtaba, to take over. Iran's chief justice, Ebrahim Raisi, is also a contender.
  • But the IRGC could also assume even more control, while perhaps retaining a veneer of clerical authority.

Go deeper

7. Stories we're watching

Flying kites, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Photo: Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

  1. Reports: Ousted official was investigating Pompeo and Saudi arms sales
  2. Trump plans to keep total WHO funding cut
  3. Israel wants to move fast on annexations, fearing Biden
  4. India extends lockdown; Modi popularity rises
  5. Rwanda Genocide fugitive arrested
  6. Rubio next acting Senate Intelligence chief
  7. U.K. hires 17,000 contact tracers
“I said who appointed him? They said President Obama. I said, look, I'll terminate him. I don't know what's going on other than that."
— Trump on firing the State Department’s inspector general, at Mike Pompeo’s request
Dave Lawler