China’s would-be tourists stay put along with their dollars

A drop in visitors from world’s largest outbound market and fears at home over outbreak take a toll on other countries.

A health officer screens arriving passengers from China at Changi airport in Singapore in late January [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

Singapore – China is the world’s largest source of outbound tourists. But travel bans, suspended flights, and government advisories are keeping many would-be tourists from mainland China at home – with their tourist dollars.

That means regional economies with traditionally high volumes of Chinese tourists are losing a lot of what used to be steady business and, in some of those markets, such as Singapore, many in the country are staying home for fear of the spreading coronavirus – delivering a one-two punch to many local businesses.

Tourists from mainland China make up about one-fifth of all visitors to Singapore.

Despite its strong links with China, Singapore was among the first countries to impose a travel ban on Chinese visitors following the outbreak of the virus.

WHO: Coronavirus a ‘global health emergency’

Air travel from China to Asian destinations such as Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia was booming in recent years.

But that has changed abruptly since the coronavirus outbreak, and its impact is also being felt in cities from Australia to the US and Europe that traditionally see high volumes of Chinese travellers.

“You’re seeing massive capacity cuts by airlines”, Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of aviation news site FlightGlobal, told Al Jazeera.

“It’s terrible for the airlines, it’s terrible for the hotels and businesses in the destination cities”.

Half-empty restaurants

On Friday in Singapore, the country’s Ministry of Health raised its risk assessment for the coronavirus to the second-highest level, meaning the disease is severe but has not spread widely. There are at least 30 confirmed cases of infections in Singapore so far, including six Chinese and five Singaporean nationals.

In the city-state’s Chinatown neighbourhood, merchants say business is down by 50 percent or more.

At Wan Nian Stone Pot Fish restaurant, Patrick Xie wears a face mask as he stands at the door waiting for customers. Business is less than half the normal level, he said.

“It’s because of the virus, people get paranoid and don’t come out to eat”, he told Al Jazeera. “You see a decline in tourists, you see a decline in locals”.

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People stock up on food and supplies after Singapore raised the coronavirus outbreak alert to orange [Edgar Su/Reuters]

Derek Lim, who also wears a face mask as he hawks fresh durian and jackfruit from a street cart in Chinatown, said he normally makes a minimum of 500 Singapore dollars ($359) on a weekday and sometimes as much as 1,000 Singapore dollars ($719) on weekends.

But in the last two weeks, he has made about 120 Singapore dollars ($86) on weekdays, and maybe 250 Singapore dollars ($179) on weekends.

No business for Chinese tour guides

Ben Richmond, a tailor in Chinatown for 25 years who lived through the 2003 SARS epidemic, worries the current outbreak can last several months because a cure has not been found, which he said explains the downturn in foot traffic.

“There’s a great dropoff in tourism”, Lionel Chee, a Singaporean tour guide, told Al Jazeera.

“Usually if you walk along Trengganu Street, it’s shoulder to shoulder. When the buses come in with the tourists, it’s packed”.

He added, “Chinatown is usually packed at Chinese New Year”, the long festive season that ends on Saturday.

Chee met for coffee recently with two other tour guides, Jasmine Tan and Stanley Foo. While they have a steady decline in customers, the situation is worse for Chinese-speaking tour guides, as tourist travel from the mainland has come to a halt.

“Because no one is coming from the PRC to Singapore, there is no business for Chinese tour guides,” Foo said.

Similar scenes play out all over the island nation, from Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping belt to the walkways along the Singapore River, where restaurants and bars normally cater to teeming crowds. Shopping malls, hotels and casinos reported that business had dropped last weekend by up to half, according to Singapore newspapers.

Residents shun crowds

In addition, with many residents opting to shun crowds and public events, many scheduled gatherings are being cancelled or postponed.

“It is kind of like a domino effect. A lot of these programmes are being postponed, that discourages people from moving around, and that impacts businesses,” Chee said.

A drop in the usual hustle-and-bustle became obvious to Wilson Leong, 42, when he took a bus trip from Singapore to Johor Bahru in Malaysia, where he makes frequent weekend getaways.

In the past, his usual wait to go through customs at the border could have stretched to two hours or more. Last Saturday, it took less than 30 minutes, he said. The return trip to Singapore took almost no time at all, he added.

“Families with their kids are not going over (to Malaysia), nobody wants to risk the virus,” Leong told Al Jazeera.

Ang Choe Keng, 62, a homemaker in Singapore, says she avoids mass transit and public spaces.

When she felt slightly ill a few days ago, she opted against going to a class she is taking.

“The class administrator was very appreciative that I did not attend. There’s anxiety everywhere,” she told Al Jazeera.


Similarly, Singaporean PN Balji skipped a wedding last Saturday to avoid making contact with crowds.

“Just to be extra cautious. I’m 72 years old, I do have preexisting conditions, so it was better to stay away,” Balji told Al Jazeera.

While he feels perfectly healthy, 24-year-old college student Keith Yap will not be able to go anywhere for a few more days. He had returned to Singapore from Beijing following a Chinese New Year family reunion, only to be told he had to self-quarantine for two weeks.

When he went to his college dorm to collect his belongings and return to his parents’ Singapore home for the quarantine period, “I saw people avoid me for the fear that I have the Wuhan virus,” he told Al Jazeera.

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Medical staff prepare pre-screening procedure at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Singapore [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

“The main drawback is that being self-quarantined does take a toll on your mental health. I have been unable to go to church, I cannot share meals with friends or go out with them.”

Another college student, Winnie Li, 22, is worried that her parents, Chinese citizens in Beijing, will not be able to attend her graduation in May.

Others who deal with the public say they have to trust in government efforts to control the outbreak. Like Lim Tow Chiau, a rideshare driver, who says he does not expect his passengers to wear a face mask.

“What can you do? Life has to go on as normal”, he told Al Jazeera.

Business conferences and other events are being scaled down or postponed.

The Singapore Airshow, Asia’s biggest aerospace gathering, is set to begin in the next few days but on a scaled-down level.

Corporate events planned by a Singapore-based social enterprise were cancelled due to public fears.

“The coronavirus is really wreaking havoc for us”, Tom Peacock-Nazil of Seven Clean Seas, a coastal clean-up organisation, told Al Jazeera.

“Corporate events are a huge part of our day-to-day funding and we have now had all clients scheduled for February and March cancel. A hackathon scheduled next week to develop a data collection app was just cancelled, too”.

Chloe Lim contributed to this story

Source: Al Jazeera