The world's most popular tourist cities may have to rethink their entire model

16 Sep 2020 1:20 PM
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  • Tourism levels across the world have dropped drastically since COVID-19.
  • Nowhere has been more damaged than Thailand, which depends on tourism for 11% of its total GDP.
  • It's essential these areas build back more sustainable tourism industries, to help them survive any future shocks.
Bangkok tourist destination Khao San Road is usually heaving with persons on weekends, its cheap beer bars, tattoo parlours, street vendors, hostels and buzzing nightlife drawing budget travellers and tour group alike.

On a recently available Saturday evening, the road was deserted except for a few dozen locals who wandered past boarded up shops, ignoring restaurant staff calling out meal and drink deals.

Khao San Road plainly shows the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Bangkok, the world's most visited city for four consecutive years before a ban on international travel.

"I've never seen it like this. Usually we don't possess time to are a symbol of a good minute," said a waitress who goes on the name Pookie.

"Lots of businesses have shut here, and if we don't see foreign tourists returning soon, we may also shut. There are several locals coming on the weekends, but that's not enough to keep people going," she said, pointing to the empty tables.

After a record 39.8 million foreign visitors last year whose spending accounted to 11.4% of gross domestic product, Thailand had looked to welcome a lot more than 40 million tourists this season.

But with flight bans and quarantines, the central bank expects only 8 million visitors this season.

The effect is keenly felt in Bangkok, where most tourists spend a night or two before going to sandy beaches and hilltop Buddhist temples, with questions over whether metropolis should ditch the mass tourism model it has come to depend on.

This is a question many cities are grappling with, as the continuing future of urban tourism is "deeply uncertain" in the short to medium term, said Tony Matthews, a senior lecturer in urban and environmental planning at Australia's Griffith University.

"Cities that rely heavily on tourism are facing an extraordinary crisis. Do they wait it out until mass tourism is viable again, or do they start developing major new industries and economies?" he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Nevertheless, you can't easily retool an urban economy, and moving away from a tourism-dependent economical model is not easy unless there is another thing ready to take over that's at least as beneficial."

Quality over quantity

With cheap flights fuelling a boom in tourism in recent years, cities from Amsterdam to Sydney have struggled to balance the needs of local residents with the demands of visitors who boost the hospitality industry but can also cause damage.

Overcrowding can frustrate local residents, drive up rents, and put pressure on infrastructure including public transit and waste management, while also damaging the ecology and cultural and heritage assets, according to McKinsey Consulting.

With restrictions due to the coronavirus, some cities are changing their tourism-focused strategy.

Authorities in Barcelona said they might put "quality over quantity", promoting local food and drawing more high spenders.

In Amsterdam, authorities said they would create a so-called "doughnut" model that prioritises social and ecological goals for better living, including decent housing, healthcare, and climate action and biodiversity.

"With less future income from tourists, it seems sensible for Amsterdam to attempt to improve its monetary fundamentals in different ways," said Matthews.

"But cities build up tourism profiles and associated economies as time passes. They come to rely upon these and will not need to improve approach unless they must."

Thailand has shut a few of its most popular beaches recently to permit fragile coral reefs to recover from pollution due to tourism, and removed vendors from Khao San Road and the areas to appeal more to tourists.

There have also been efforts to discard Thailand's seedy reputation, and the go-go-bars and soapy massage parlours that Bangkok plus some beach towns are notorious for.

Now, authorities have the opportunity to move towards a more sustainable model, said David Robinson, a tourism expert who has long criticised authorities' drive for quantity over quality.

"The race to the most notable of the 'most visited' chart will not benefit the united states," said Robinson, director of Bangkok River Partners, a network of riverside businesses that boost culture and heritage.

"More is just more, not better, and definitely not more financially good for the country. It's unsustainable."

New scenario

Thailand has fared well in containing the coronavirus, with some 3,300 cases and fewer than 60 deaths recorded.

Yet plans for a "travel bubble" agreement with select countries that would have allowed movement with no need for travellers to undergo quarantine have been shelved amid new outbreaks in East Asia, officials said.

Thailand has said it will allow a restricted number of business travellers and medical tourists in to the country, while also encouraging domestic tourism with stimulus measures worth a lot more than $700 million to defray costs of hotels and flights.

Domestic tourism made up about 30% of the full total market, and hadn't received much attention before, said Tanes Petsuwan, a deputy governor of marketing at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).

"This is the worst ever crisis for the tourism industry; the tsunami, SARS, MERS, bird flu, political upheaval - none of it had been as bad as COVID. It has changed everything," he said.

"Tourism will never be the same again: the type of coaches beyond your Grand Palace or Chatuchak market, guides leading big tour groups around major attractions - we won't see that again, so we are preparing for a fresh scenario."

As the meetings and conferences market has shrunk, there is demand for eco-tourism and wellness and medical vacations, said Michael Marshall, chief commercial officer of the Minor Hotels Group, which operates a lot more than 500 hotels.

"Luxury travel can be an opportunity, but the domestic market is only going to keep us likely to some extent," he said.

Authorities also cannot simply "turn off the tap" on the sex industry with out a strategy and a transitional intend to develop cultural tourism, said Robinson.

"I'm encouraged to start to see the number of folks during COVID-19 learning their city again," he said.

Rose Duangkamol and her friend who were eating fried noodles on Khao San Road were doing that.

"We used to come here maybe monthly before, however now we come more often," she said. "It's nice when it is not so crowded."