By Agence France-Presse
LUANG PRABANG, Laos/BEIJING – Elephant parks unvisited, curios at markets unsold as tuk-tuks sit idle: Southeast Asia is facing billions of dollars in losses from a collapse in Chinese tourism since the outbreak of a deadly new coronavirus.
From Luang Prabang in northern Laos to Pattaya in Thailand, Hoi An in Vietnam, and the Cambodian casino town of Sihanoukville, takings have plummeted as Chinese travelers find themselves subject to a host of restrictions at home and abroad.
“We haven’t had any Chinese for 10 days since they closed the road from Yunnan,” says Ong Tau, 47, from behind her stall of fruit shakes in the temple-studded Laotian colonial town of Luang Prabang.
“Business is down 20-30 percent. It will get worse.”
Tour guides, mall workers, and restaurant staff are all feeling the burn as Chinese — the world’s biggest travelers — stay at home in the middle of a global health crisis.
“My friend has lost four or five big tour groups… they would have paid for his low season,” said Tee, a guide in Luang Prabang, giving only one name in the tightly-controlled communist country, a mass of tuk-tuks standing idle behind him.
But in one of Southeast Asia’s least well-resourced countries, there may be one bright side to the sudden economic pain.
“We don’t know how to protect ourselves,” he added. “The government doesn’t tell people anything… so maybe less Chinese is a good thing for now.”
Number of cases drops
The number of new cases from China’s coronavirus epidemic dropped for a third consecutive day on Sunday, as the World Health Organisation chief warned it was “impossible” to predict how the outbreak would develop.
Global concern remains high about the spread of the virus, which first emerged in China’s central Hubei province in December, with the first death outside Asia reported in France this weekend.
The death toll jumped to 1,665 in mainland China on Sunday after 142 more people died from the virus. More than 68,000 people have now been infected — but the number of new cases of the COVID-19 strain continued to decline.
In hardest-hit Hubei, the number of new cases slowed for a third consecutive day and at 139, the number of deaths was level with Saturday’s toll.
The number of new cases in other parts of the country has dropped for twelve straight days.
The WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned however that it was “impossible to predict which direction this epidemic will take”.
“We ask all governments, companies, and news organisations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm without fanning the flames of hysteria,” he said, speaking at the Munich Security Conference.
“China has bought the world time. We don’t know how much time.”
The UN health body has asked China for more details on how diagnoses are being made.
An international team of WHO experts was scheduled to arrive in Beijing this weekend for a joint mission with Chinese counterparts.
Loans and job losses
The slump is being felt sharply in Thailand, where tourism authorities say arrivals from China — usually close to one million a month — have plunged by 90 percent so far this February.
At the Chang Siam Elephant Park in Pattaya, a few hours south of Bangkok, owner Nantakorn Phatnamrob fears he will soon be pressed into debt to float a business which has lost nearly $65,000 since the outbreak.
“People are afraid to visit,” he told AFP. “If it stays like this, I will have to get a loan from the bank.”
Crocodile farms and tiger sanctuaries — controversial tourist beacons where visitors can pet the animals — are also deserted, leaving owners to feed expensive star attractions.
The outbreak has also spooked western tourists at the height of peak season in what has already been a tough period for Thai tourism thanks to a strong baht.
Thailand anticipates shedding five million tourists this year, taking with them “250 billion baht (over $8 billion) in revenue”, according to Don Nakornthab, director of economic policy at Bank of Thailand.
“Our hopes that the economy will do better than last year are very low… it’s possible it could grow below 2 percent,” he added.
For staunch Beijing ally Cambodia, where only one case of the virus has been confirmed so far despite a large Chinese presence, strongman leader Hun Sen has repeatedly played down the risk to his country.
Still, Cambodian tourism is taking a hammering.
Ticket sales at the famed Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap have fallen between 30 and 40 percent this year, while in Sihanoukville, a southern beach resort notorious for its casinos, the tourist take has shrivelled.
“I used to make $100 a day,” said Chantha Reak, a ride-hailing driver. “Now it’s $10.”
Businesses are praying for a bounce back if and when the virus is controlled.
With 10 million Chinese visitors each year, Thailand hopes the pain will ease in a few months.
Regular visitor Yen Ran, 25, from Chengdu, came to Pattaya despite the health warnings.
“I am a little concerned how other countries perceive us,” she told AFP. “But when there’s a cure, things will get better.”
Cases on Japan ship rise to 355
TOKYO (AFP) –The number of people who have tested positive for the new coronavirus on a quarantined ship off Japan’s coast has risen to 355, the country’s health minister said Sunday.
The new figures came as the United States was preparing to evacuate some of its citizens from the Diamond Princess, which has been in quarantine since February 5 in the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo.
Hong Kong also said it would offer its 330 citizens on board the chance to take a charter flight back. Canada, too, announced a similar decision to repatriate its nationals on the ship.
“So far, we have conducted tests for 1,219 individuals. Of those, 355 people tested positive,” health minister Katsunobu Kato told a roundtable discussion on public broadcaster NHK — a rise of 70 from the last government toll.
Japan’s efforts to control the viral infections on the vessel have prompted international concern.
The cruise ship arrived off the Japanese coast in early February with more than 3,700 passengers and crew members from more than 50 countries and regions.
It was placed under quarantine after authorities found that a passenger who got off the boat in Hong Kong during its voyage tested positive for the virus.
Officials kept finding new infections among the passengers and crew members and transporting them to Japanese hospitals, while others have been told to stay inside their individual cabins during the 14-day quarantine period, which should end on Wednesday.
Japan has not been able to test all those on board due to limited supplies of testing kits, facilities and manpower that are also needed by authorities tracking the spread of the virus among the general population.
“Based on the high number of COVID-19 cases identified onboard the Diamond Princess, the Department of Health and Human Services made an assessment that passengers and crew members onboard are at high risk of exposure,” the US embassy said in a letter to its passengers.
The US, Canada and Hong Kong said those repatriated will go through another two-week quarantine period at home.
The captain of the Diamond Princess has told passengers that the Japanese government might start testing them for the virus from Tuesday, and those with negative results would be allowed to get off the ship from Friday.
Outside mainland China, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist in France was the fourth person to die from the new coronavirus, with the other deaths in the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.
A US State Department spokesperson said Americans stranded on the vessel would be evacuated, and would face a further quarantine of two weeks in the United States.
Hong Kong authorities also announced it would charter a flight for city residents on the ship, who would stay at a quarantine centre for 14 days on their return.
With the government facing criticism over its handling of the crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for tighter policing to protect social stability.
The government must “increase use of police force and strengthen the visible use of police”, to ensure stability during the crisis, Xi said in a February 3 speech published by state media on Saturday.
China’s central bank said it will also disinfect banknotes with ultraviolet light or high temperatures and store them for up to 14 days before they are put back into circulation.