Does Asia have the answer to the question: what will tourism look like in the coronavirus era?

In Bangkok is a sunny day, and on the most famous tourist street, the Cletana Thangworachai store is open for business.Her Khao San Road store is full of shiny magnets, brightly colored elephant keychains and cotton-patterned trousers that have become an unofficial uniform for backpackers in Southeast Asia.

But for now, he has no one to buy them…

According with CNN TRAVEL, many, like Cletana, are struggling to make ends meet. Before Covid-19, she could make $300 a day. In April, Thailand banned all international flights into the country, and now, her daily earnings are down to $2 — sometimes even zero.

But the 45-year-old, who has been selling souvenirs on the street for more than a decade, still opens her shop each day, hoping that she may get lucky with a rare passing tourist.

With so much at stake for livelihoods and economies, countries around the world are looking at ways to keep tourism businesses afloat.

New Zealand and Australia have committed to creating a “travel bubble” allowing visits between the two countries — once it’s safe to do so. China has begun allowing domestic travel, although its borders are still shut to most foreigners. Thailand is considering special tourism resorts that double as quarantine zones.

But experts warn that even with new initiatives, it could take years for travel to rise to pre-Covid-19 levels. And even when it happens, we might never travel in the same way again.

Travel bubbles

In the short term, the future of tourism is regional travel bubbles.

Australia and New Zealand have committed to a travel corridor, which is not expected to come for a few months. In Europe, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have announced plans to open their internal borders for citizens of the three countries from May 15.

For most countries, staying isolated is not an option they can afford long-term, and experts predict it’s just a matter of time before other countries create travel bubbles of their own.

Vietnam and Thailand could look at creating a travel corridor over the next few months, according to Thailand-based Mario Hardy, chief executive of the nonprofit Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

According with CNN TRAVEL, aviation analyst Brendan Sobie expects to see similar arrangements within Europe and North America.

When countries are looking searching for pair-up partners, he says they will be considering a few factors. They’ll look for countries that appear to have their outbreaks under control — and that have statistics they can trust.

Hardy thinks they’re also likely to stay regional at first.

They’re also likely to pair with countries that they already have strong geopolitical relationships with, says Hong Kong University tourism geographer Benjamin Iaquinto, adding that New Zealand and Australia already have a tight political relationship so their pairing makes sense.

In Asia, the big question will be over China — the world’s largest market for outbound tourism.

Surveys show that Chinese tourists are keen to stick with what they know and not travel too far, says Bill Barnett, the managing director of global hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks. That means Thailand, which attracts around 11 million Chinese tourists a year, could be one of the first to open up travel to China.

China may be less interested in opening up travel to places where there was anti-China sentiment during the outbreak — places such as Australia, says Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia who researches tourism.

“I think tourism is going to be damaged by the geopolitical games or strategies that had been played out to take advantage of the crisis,” she says.

And bubbles will be volatile. If there’s a resurgence of cases in a country, the travel corridors will just close, adds Hardy.

Reopening borders

It’s likely to be a long time before there’s widespread traveling beyond our regional bubbles, say experts.

That means that travel from the United States to Asia, for instance, will be a long time away, notes Hardy.

But the appeal of that will depend on what quarantine rules stay in place — if Australians still need to go through a two-week quarantine after they return from a Thailand holiday, they might not be overly keen on an island retreat.

Meanwhile, countries that normally attract large numbers of foreign students may look at loosening rules to let them in. That includes New Zealand, which is considering allowing foreign students back into the country if they complete a two-week quarantine, national broadcaster Radio New Zealand reported.

Immunity passports

After 9/11, airports around the world rolled out additional safety measures. Experts expect coronavirus will be the same but with the focus on health.

The question that remains to be answered is what those measures will look like.

Passengers may have their temperature checked at the airport or be tested for coronavirus before they board the plane. But there are issues to be worked out around that. Authorities will need to be comfortable that rapid tests are accurate and decide how long before a flight a passenger needs to be tested.

Another suggestion is that passengers carry immunity passports, which signify if they are immune to coronavirus. China has already rolled out a form of that — all citizens have a QR code that changes color depending on their health status. They need to show it to get into restaurants and shopping malls.

But again, there are issues that need to be worked out.

The immunity passports rely on the idea that people who have recovered from Covid-19 can’t be reinfected. But for now, there’s no evidence that they have antibodies that protect them from a second infection, according to the World Health Organization.

What comes next

With so much unknown about tourism’s future, there’s a battle raging within the industry about whether this could end up changing tourism forever — possibly even for the better.

Some, like Barnett, think that eventually things will go back to normal.

Others, like Hardy and Higgins-Desbiolles, see this as an opportunity for a reset — a time to look at addressing longstanding issues such as the effects of overtourism on local cultures and the environment.

She wants to see tourism that’s slower and more thoughtful — tourism that doesn’t just benefit the traveler, but also the local economies and local communities.

In theory, that means people such as Cletana and others working in Bangkok stand to benefit. But for now, they are more focused on the immediate future.

On Thursday, Niwet Phumiwetsoonthorn, who has been driving tuk-tuks on Khao San Road, told CNN Travel his daily income had slipped from up to $70 down to $2 or even nothing. He has no money to send back to his wife and children in another province.

For the first time in his life, he has been queuing for food donations.

Shop owner Cletena — a widow with a son who requires treatment for health issues — has little savings and no plan B.

“I don’t know if and how this is going to get better,” she says. “This kind of outbreak — people will be scared for a long time.”

Source: CNN TRAVEL, Julia Hollingsworth reported and wrote from Wellington, New Zealand. Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, Thailand.

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