After two years of pandemic, a rebound in summer travel – and chaos

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.

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, drastically removing his mask and launching what is hoped will be the country’s economic reset after more than two years of coronavirus restrictions. When the crowd shouted their answer – yes, according to local media – they could have spoken on behalf of the entire pandemic-ridden world.

But a full recovery could take as long as the disaster itself, according to projections and Associated Press interviews in 11 countries in June. They suggest the hoped-for rebound feels less like a definitive bounce – and more like a bumpy path out of a deep, dark cave.

Some places, such as the French Riviera and the US Midwest, are contributing to the rise more than others – such as closed and “zero-COVID” China, which before the pandemic was the world’s main source of tourists and their spending. .

The human drive to get out and explore is helping fuel the climb, packing flights and museums despite rising coronavirus infections and inflation. But the economic emergency is the real driver of an industry worth $3.5 trillion in 2019 that the United Nations estimates has lost about as much during the pandemic. According to some estimates, tourism provides work for one in 10 people on Earth.

Many places, especially those that have relaxed safety requirements, are seeing what is in store for a summer of sunny optimism and adventure.

“They say it’s the summer of revenge trips,” Pittsburgh resident Theresa Starta, 52, said as she watched through one of Amsterdam’s canals as crowds thronged the capital. Dutch. “Everything seems so bad all over the world, so it’s nice to see some things coming back.”

“The road to full recovery is very long, but at least we got back there,” said Sanga Ruangwattanakul, president of the Khao San Road Business Association in Bangkok.

Despite the resurgence of travellers, challenges and uncertainty cast a shadow over the post-pandemic landscape. Full recoveries are generally not expected until at least 2024. Concerns hovered around a long list of issues, including inflation, supply chain issues, rising infection rates and labor shortages -work.

Before the end of June, chaos had come to define travel in the summer of 2022. Airports and airlines that cut spending at the height of the pandemic struggled to keep up with demand, resulting in canceled flights, lost luggage and other assorted nightmares. Spooked tourists have been booking trips on shorter notice, making planning harder for hotels, tour operators and others, industry insiders said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also added risk to the uneven recovery and contributed to inflation – a factor that could become a major hurdle even as other pandemic pains recede.

“It’s really the fall season that is of concern,” said Sandra Carvao, head of trade intelligence and competitiveness at the United Nations World Tourism Organization. If inflation continues to rise, especially interest rates, “families will have to rethink their spending.”

For all the virus-related travel restrictions lifted, safety should not diminish as 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 professor of tourism at the University of South Carolina, who is writing a book on pandemic recovery. “It’s going to take a while.”

Starting with the positives, the UN reported that in the first quarter of 2022, international arrivals almost tripled in the same three months of last year. March this year produced the healthiest results since the start of the pandemic, with arrivals reaching almost 50% of 2019 levels. This could reach up to 70% of 2019 arrivals by the end this year, UNWTO said in revised projections in May.

This has produced encouraging signs in some places, from Israel to the United States, Italy, Mexico and France. Resets like Thailand’s are all the rage. Big plans for 2023 are in the works in the United States, such as a cruise featuring some of Broadway’s biggest stars.

These screenings take place in the field, usually in places that had aggressive and nimble restrictions from the start and adapted by lifting many protections as vaccinations increased and the omicron variant proved to be less lethal than other variants.

Foreign tourists are flocking to places like the French Riviera, where supply chain issues are making everything, including champagne, more expensive, a restaurateur has 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 full of 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, no bouncing is necessary. It welcomed a record 10 million visitors last year and looks set to surpass that figure, said Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jeff Johnson, co-owner of Shepherd of the Hills Adventure Park, attributes that to a short 2020 closure, a loyal clientele from neighboring 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, have returned in droves this year. The approach of Easter was particularly notable in Rome, reflecting pent-up demand to visit perennial sites like the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum.

“There is a huge wanderlust, just like popping a (cork) out of a bottle,” said Bernabò Bocca, president of national hotel association Federalberghi. As Italy eased security measures in April, “a tsunami of bookings arrived from the United States to the United States at a speed never seen before.

Hopes are also high for Thailand, following its announcement last month that the country was scrapping virtually all requirements other than proof of vaccination or, in its absence, a negative coronavirus test.

Already the return of tourists has 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 far from the 30,000 daily visitors before the pandemic, according to Ruangwattanakul, the president of the trade association.

Thailand is an instructive look at the struggle for recovery, with China as a major factor. In 2019, Chinese tourists accounted for a quarter of foreign arrivals to Thailand, but there are no signs that they will return in such large numbers.

The unstable nature of the post-pandemic rise could be seen from Israel to India.

“I think we are going in the right direction,” said restaurant owner Vaibhav Khulbe in Dharmsala, India, where 4 million visitors are expected in the country this year, up from 11 million in 2019.

Like elsewhere in the world, Israel is struggling to match its 2019 tourism record, with 4.5 million visitors. Despite all restrictions being lifted, Israel expects less than half of those — about 2 million visitors — this year, according to Tourism Ministry officials. Added to other concerns, political conflict is a problem after a wave of deadly Palestinian violence inside Israel in the spring, as well as the collapse of the government last month.

Yet the ministry reports a steady, albeit gradual, increase. An unusual convergence of springtime religious holidays for Jews, Christians and Muslims helped boost visitors in April. In May, the number of visitors had risen to around 57% from the same month two years earlier.

But the recovery has been uneven for many, particularly in the occupied West Bank.

“We expected a lot 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 former historic city where President Joe Biden is expected to visit. visited in July during a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Designed by London artist Banksy and bursting with color, the hotel is locally run and well-known – but struggling. It has grown physically during the pandemic but has been forced to reduce its staff from around 50 people to 32 now. In June, its occupancy rate was around 30%.

“Tourism here,” Salsaa said, “is very fragile.”

___

The following Associated Press reporters contributed to this article: 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 Saint-Louis, Mark Stevenson and Maria Verza in Mexico City. and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok. Follow Jerusalem-based AP journalist Laurie Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman

Laurie Kellman, Associated Press