By Nirmal Ghosh, Lee Tee Jong, P. Jayaram, Kwan Weng Kin, Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Peh Shing Huei
The pavement on a road in the downtown Nana district of Bangkok is, as usual, lined with roadside stalls selling all kinds of tourist kitsch.
The scene is one straight out of the guidebooks: fake DVDs lining the racks, all sorts of souvenirs sitting on top of wooden boards, vendors hanging around in the heat of the afternoon.
But wait, something is missing. Where are the tourists?
"Now there are not many tourists. Before in the high season it would be full," says shopowner Soombut Yinglap, gesturing to the empty pavement outside his Thai kick-boxing equipment shop.
His own business has plummeted - hardly anyone walks in to buy shorts, shin pads and headguards any more.
Ask any vendor around Bangkok, and you are likely to get a similar story. Or Phuket. Or Beijing. Or Kuala Lumpur.
Tourism is the region has taken a hit from the economic storm that has swept the globe, as thousands of families cancel trips amid fears of wage cuts and layoffs.
"Tourism is the weakest link in the economy," notes Mr Zhang Lei, a manager with the Shanghai Spring International Travel Agency.
"When people become more cautious with their spending, holidays would be the first item they sacrifice. It is a luxury, not a necessity."
More than just hotels, restaurants and tour agencies, entire economies suffer. Bali and Phuket, for instance, rely heavily on tourism for economic growth.
Inbound: Drying up
In Thailand, chairman of the Tourism Council of Thailand Kongkirt Hiranyakit fears the potential loss of up to 70,000 of the estimated one million jobs.
The Land of Smiles has suffered a double whammy - from the economic crisis and the political troubles in Bangkok.
Hotels are seeing the lowest occupancy in years and Thailand is expecting to end the year with 50% fewer arrivals than expected.
The crises could not have come at a worse time for major draws like Phuket - which accounts for one-third of Thailand's foreign tourism arrivals - which are entering the traditional high season. Occupancy rates, which normally average 80%, are likely to end the year at 55%, said Phuket Tourist Association vice-president Bhuritt Maswongsa.
Bookings last month at Laguna Phuket, a resort on the holiday isle, were 20% less than last year, said marketing director Debbie Dionysius.
"All the hotels are struggling." The picture is not much brighter in China. The Olympics in August may have been the Middle Kingdom's coming-out party, but for its travel industry, the bubbly has had little fizz.
Tourists have stayed away as China struggled in an extraordinary year of natural disasters and restrictions, from the snow storms and Tibetan riots in March to the Sichuan earthquake in May and the travel restrictions during the Olympic Games in August.
"So many things have happened this year in China," said Mr Zheng Yi, a deputy manager of Guangzhou Nanhu International agency. "It has been a tremendous blow to the industry, especially the smaller travel agencies."
Some 10% of smaller agencies are said to have shut down this year alone, victims of the consecutive jolts. And "Incredible India" - which the country is trying to promote itself as - is finding it increasingly harder to entice tourists to such sights as the Taj Mahal.
Tour agencies and hotels are bracing themselves for worse to come: Many of the five million tourists who visited India last year were from the United States and Britain - where the economic crisis has hit hardest.
The Mumbai terrorist attack last week is bound to discourage tourism in the months to come, with travel firms already reporting a spate of cancellations, especially by tourists from the US and Europe.
Some holiday hot spots, though, have emerged unscathed - so far. Bali actually welcomed over 10% more tourists in the past three months, compared to the same period last year, and Indonesia as a whole saw tourist arrivals rise 21% in October.
The country has benefited from holidaymakers switching from places like Thailand, as well as a weakening rupiah which has made it a cheaper place.
In the past three months, the rupiah has fallen 33% against the US dollar.
As the figures head southwards, about all that many industry players can do to hold back the falling tide is to cut prices to woo reluctant tourists back.
Everywhere - from China to Thailand - hotels, airlines and tour agencies are slashing rates. But for Mr Soombut Yinglap, the owner of the kick-boxing equipment shop, there is little he can do.
"I cannot do anything, just wait and see," he said. "Eat little, spend little - try and save some money."
(Additional information from Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg)
Top picture: Photo of a vendor napping. Tourism around the region has been badly affected by the global economic turmoil as people cancel holidays amid fears of wage cuts and layoffs.
|Inbound: Driving up
♦Thailand: Tourist arrivals down 16.5% in September, with a 50% drop expected for 2008; job losses of 70,000 feared.
♦China: Number of foreign visitors staying overnight down 2% between January and October.
♦India: Tourist arrivals up just 1.8% in October, compared with double-digit growth in recent years.
♦Malaysia: Arrivals forecast for next year down by 10%.
♦Japan: Arrivals down between 2 and 6.9% in August, September and October.
♦What it means: Economies of tourism-dependent countries hit.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 6, 2008.
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