Global tourism takes major hit as virus halts Chinese travel

New Delhi: This should have been a good year for global tourism, with trade tensions gradually easing, certain economies growing and banner events like the Summer Olympics taking place in Tokyo.

But the viral outbreak in China has thrown the travel industry into chaos, threatening billions in losses and keeping millions of would-be travellers at home.

Gabrielle Autry, an American who lives in China, had expected to travel to Hong Kong this week to get engaged to her Chinese boyfriend.

But those plans are on hold, and the couple is quarantined in their apartment in Hangzhou, an eight-hour drive from the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan.

As of Wednesday, China had reported 24,324 cases of the new virus and 490 deaths.

Thirty airlines have suspended service to China and 25,000 flights were cancelled this week alone, according to OAG, a travel data company.

Hotel rooms in China are largely empty; Chinese hotel occupancy plummeted 75 per cent in the last two weeks of January, according to STR, a hotel research firm.

More than 7,000 passengers are quarantined on two cruise ships in Japan and Hong Kong.

Before the outbreak, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation was forecasting growth of 3-4 per cent in global tourism this year, an increase over the 1.5 billion tourist arrivals in 2019.

Upsides, like economic improvement in the Middle East and Latin America, outweighed some potential downsides, like the uncertainty of Brexit or any lingering US-China trade disputes.

Central to those numbers was the promise of an ever-growing number of travellers from China, where rapidly growing incomes have led to a global tourism boom.

In 2018, Chinese tourists made nearly 150 million trips abroad and spent USD 277 billion, according to IHS Markit. That’s up from just USD 15.4 billion in 2002.

The loss of those tourists is being felt most acutely in Asia, which usually attracts 75 per cent of Lunar New Year travellers, says ForwardKeys, a travel consulting company.

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