By LAURIE KELLMAN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — At a tourism conference in Phuket last month, Thailand’s prime minister looked at attendees and asked a question with a predictable answer.
“Are you ready?” Prayuth Chan-ocha asked, dramatically removing his mask and launching what is expected to be the country’s economic reset after more than two years of restrictions caused by the coronavirus. When the crowd shouted its answer – yes, according to local media – it could have been speaking for the entire world hit by the pandemic.
But a full recovery could take as long as the catastrophe itself, according to Associated Press projections and interviews in 11 countries in June. They suggest that the expected rebound is less like a definitive leap – and more like a bumpy path out of a deep, dark cave.
Some places, like the French Riviera and the American Midwest, are contributing to the escalation more than others – like closed China, “zero-COVID”, which before the pandemic was the world’s main source of tourists and their spending.
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The human drive to explore and explore is helping to drive the rise, crowding 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, which the United Nations estimates has lost so much during the pandemic. According to some estimates, tourism provides work for one in 10 people on Earth.
Many places, particularly those that have loosened safety requirements, are seeing what passes for a summer of sunny optimism and adventure.
“They’re saying it’s the summer of revenge travel,” said Theresa Starta, 52, a resident of Pittsburgh, as she looked through one of Amsterdam’s canals at the crowds that had gathered in the Dutch capital. “Everything looks so bad around the world, so it’s good to see some things coming back.”
“The road to a 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 resounding return of travelers, challenges and uncertainties cast shadows over the post-pandemic scenario. Full recoveries are generally not expected until at least 2024. Concerns revolved around a long list of issues, including inflation, supply chain problems, rising infection rates and labor shortages.
Before the end of June, chaos began to define travel in the summer of 2022. Airports and airlines that scaled back during the depths of the pandemic struggled to keep up with demand, resulting in canceled flights, lost luggage and other assorted nightmares. Frightened tourists booked trips at shorter notice, making planning difficult for hotels, tour operators and others, industry experts 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 drag even as other pandemic pains recede.
“It’s really the autumn season that worries us,” said Sandra Carvão, head of market intelligence and competitiveness at the UN World Tourism Organization. If inflation continues to rise, especially interest rates, “families will have to rethink their spending”.
For all the virus travel restrictions lifted, security is unlikely to lessen 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 recovery from the pandemic. “This will take a while.”
Starting with the positives, the UN reported that during the first quarter of 2022, international arrivals nearly tripled in the same three months as last year. March of this year has produced the healthiest results since the start of the pandemic, with arrivals rising to nearly 50% of 2019 levels. reviewed in May.
This has produced encouraging signs in certain places, from Israel to the United States, Italy, Mexico and France. Reboots like the ones in Thailand are all the rage. Big plans for 2023 are on the horizon in the United States, like a cruise with some of Broadway’s biggest stars.
These projections are happening on the ground, often in places that have had aggressive and agile restrictions from the start and have adapted by lifting many protections as vaccinations increased 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 — including champagne — more expensive, one 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 mostly from the UK and the US.
In Branson, Missouri, known for its country music shows and outdoor attractions, no rebound is required. It welcomed a record 10 million visitors last year and appears to be on pace to surpass that, said Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Jeff Johnson, co-owner of adventure park Shepherd of the Hills, attributes this to a short 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 – have returned in droves this year. Preparation for Easter was especially notable in Rome, reflecting pent-up demand to visit perennial star sites such as the Sistine Chapel and the Coliseum.
“There’s a huge desire to travel, like popping a (cork) in a bottle,” said Bernabò Bocca, president of the national hotel association Federalberghi. As Italy relaxed security measures in April, “a tsunami of reserves arrived from the United States at a speed never seen before.”
Hopes are also high for Thailand, following the announcement last month that the country was dropping virtually all requirements except proof of vaccination or, in its absence, a negative coronavirus test.
The return of tourists has already given new life to local tourism. Bangkok’s famous backpacker street Khao San Road, nearly deserted last year, is seeing up to 5,000 visitors a day — promising numbers, 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 struggle for recovery, with China being an important factor. In 2019, Chinese tourists accounted for a quarter of foreign arrivals to Thailand, but there are no signs they will return in such numbers.
The uneven nature of the post-pandemic escalation can be seen from Israel to India.
“I think we are heading 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 2019 tourism record, when 4.5 million people visited. Despite lifting all restrictions, Israel expects less than half of that – about 2 million visitors – this year, tourism ministry officials say. Adding to other concerns, political strife is a problem following a wave of deadly Palestinian violence inside Israel in the spring, coupled with the collapse of the government last month.
Still, the ministry is reporting a steady, albeit gradual, escalation. An unusual convergence of spring religious holidays for Jews, Christians and Muslims helped increase visitors in April. By May, visitor numbers had risen 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 were expecting 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 Belém, the old town where President Joe Biden is due to visit in July during a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Designed by London-based artist Banksy and bursting with color, the hotel is locally managed and well-known – but with difficulties. It has physically expanded 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 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 Mexico City and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok. Follow Jerusalem-based AP journalist Laurie Kellman on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APLaurieKellman
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