On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that the coronavirus outbreak had reached the level of a pandemic, with “alarming levels of spread and severity.” Almost immediately, international travel ground to a halt, as countries closed their borders, airlines canceled flights, and cities around the world went into lockdown. The losses in life, health and people’s livelihoods continued to mount.
The blow to the travel industry and all who depend on it was stunning: International arrivals at U.S. airports fell by 98% in April 2020 compared with the previous year, and stayed at that level for months. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the global tourism economy is expected to shrink by about 80% when all the data for 2020 is in. With the one-year anniversary of the pandemic upon us, we looked at places around the world that are heavily dependent on tourism to see how they have adapted.
CHANGI AIRPORT, SINGAPORE
Waiting for passengers who don’t come
On a recent Thursday morning at Singapore’s Changi Airport, six people tapped away on their laptops, surrounded by plush chairs in the Changi Lounge. On every other chair, a sticker exhorted people to keep it empty, reminding them that “maintaining a distance keeps everyone safe.” Gone were the buffet of refreshments and snacks. Instead, waiters brought croissants and coffee.
Alyss Leow, a 36-year-old human resources executive, works from the lounge every two to three weeks. She paid $200 for a three-month period.
“There are days when I don’t want to work from home, and this is a sweet spot,” said Leow. “It gives you that kind of psychological break that you need.”
Two years ago, Singapore’s Changi Airport was on a roll. It opened a sleek $1.3 billion shopping and entertainment complex with a movie theater and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. It was voted the world’s best airport for the seventh consecutive year. Over-the-top and instantly iconic, Changi handled a record 63.8 million passengers in 2019.
Then, as COVID-19 spread around the world, passenger traffic at Changi dropped nearly 83% last year. The airport’s net profit fell 36% to roughly $327 million.
To cope with the slowdown, the airport decided to focus on its only market: Singapore residents. Even before COVID-19, many locals flocked to the airport to eat, shop and study. Adapting to the pandemic, airport executives have offered “glamping” and go-karting and converted the Changi Lounge into a coworking space. They invited parents to bring their children for sleepovers and educational tours.
As an airport that has relied solely on an international market, analysts say, Changi will struggle more than most of its peers in recovering from the pandemic.
The pause has prompted the airport to rethink its role in a post-COVID-19 world. It had always been a destination in itself, but the pandemic gave it a reason to launch a more ambitious experiment: Could the airport draw people to stay longer?
Airport executives started thinking about how travel-starved Singaporeans could experience Jewel, the mega shopping complex, “in a brand-new way,” said Jayson Goh, managing director of Changi’s airport operations management.
However on a recent Thursday, only a handful of travelers, some decked out in full personal protective equipment, were seen preparing to fly out of the airport. Several bored airport employees tapped on their mobile phones, awaiting passengers who never came.
— Sui-Lee Wee
HOI AN, VIETNAM
Going back to the sea to survive
Le Van Hung stepped with a mix of angst and hope from his weathered house under coconut palms on Vietnam’s central coast, around the clucking chickens and up the short path to intuit the waves, the sky, the sun.
A calm sea meant that after months of stormy weather he could safely paddle his round basket boat into the South China Sea to catch fish and crab to support his family.
Hung, 51, had been a deep-sea fisherman for many years on bigger boats. But he gave that up in 2019 to help his daughter run the beachside restaurant they opened in 2017 in Hoi An, a historic former port, to ride the city’s surge in international tourism driven by Western adventurers and Asian package tours.
The tourists and most of his family’s income vanished when the pandemic struck, and, in an especially cruel blow, a monsoon dragged their Yang Yang restaurant, perched on a dune, into the sea in November.
Now, like many others in Hoi An who had quit fishing to work in tourism as waiters, security guards or speedboat drivers, or open their own businesses catering to travelers, he has reverted to what he knows best, riding the waves to make a living.
Hung, a short man with a slight paunch and a bad back, supports six relatives who live with him in just a few rooms under a clay-tile roof with wooden shutters. They are barely getting by.
Since September, violent storms and, more recently, strong winds and rough seas, kept Hung off the water, fearful that his hot tub-sized boat would capsize.
Looking at the waves in late February, with half of his restaurant’s brick bathroom still on the littered beach below, he told himself: The day after tomorrow it will be safe.
So at sunrise on a recent Tuesday, Hung stood in his boat paddling up-and-over fizzy 3-foot surf. About 400 yards from shore on undulating aquamarine water, he started unfurling clear fishing net. Trailing from the boat as he paddled, the net created a 6-foot-deep screen eventually stretching more than 500 yards and ready to snare schools of fish.
Hung grew up in Hoi An, which for centuries has been a fishing community wedged between the turquoise sea and emerald rice fields. Its atmospheric ancient town is lined with long wooden Chinese shop houses and mustard-colored French colonials.
Over the last 15 years, Vietnamese developers and international hotels have invested billions of dollars in building waterfront resorts, while locals and outsiders have opened hundreds of small hotels, restaurants and shops in and around the city’s historic core. International tourists flocked to the city, crowding the beaches by day and packing the old town at night. The pandemic hit extra hard because Hoi An had become overly reliant on foreigners. In 2019, 4 million of its 5.35 million visitors were from abroad.
As hotels sprung up around Hung’s home on Tan Thanh Beach, near the old town, the family borrowed from relatives in 2017 to buy a few dozen sun beds and thatch umbrellas and erected an open-air restaurant on the dune behind the house.
But the restaurant’s tables emptied as the pandemic crippled Southeast Asia.
Then Vietnam suffered its second COVID-19 outbreak in July, 40 minutes north in Danang, just as locals were feeling hopeful about a nascent domestic tourism recovery. That shut everything down again for weeks in Hoi An.
Now, after days on the water when the sea is being stingy, Hung dreams of abundant catches.
“We hope,” Hung said, “but I never know what happens under the water.”
— Patrick Scott, a former business editor who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
A cruise ship town with no cruises
Normally around now, Skagway residents start getting serious about the summer ahead. It’s no joking matter, because if you count the May and September shoulder season, they have to make all their money for the year in five intense months. On a busy summer day, 13,000 passengers disembark from cruise ships to soak up the atmosphere of this Gold Rush-era town in southeast Alaska.
Despite a year-round population of only a thousand people, before the pandemic Skagway was the 18th most visited cruise ship port in the world, with $160 million flowing annually into its economy. For the summer of 2020, Skagway was expecting 1.3 million tourists to stroll down Broadway, its main street of historic saloons and hotels turned souvenir shops. It’s such a tourist-focused town that even Mayor Andrew Cremata has a side gig selling tours at the dock.
COVID-19 transformed Skagway from cruise ship-fueled boomtown to ghost town. There were no cruise ship visits in 2020, and 2021 looks grim as well. To make matters worse, the pandemic didn’t just destroy its economy; it also cut off Skagway’s land connection to the rest of the world. The only road out of town leads to the currently closed Canadian border about 20 miles away.
To avoid a mass exodus of residents, the town came up with a unique idea. Instead of reserving CARES Act stimulus funds for municipal operations — like everywhere else in the United States — Skagway leaders decided to redistribute most of the money to residents. Each full-time resident, regardless of age, received $1,000 monthly from June to December 2020, on one condition: They had to spend the money in town. It could be used to pay a mortgage, to buy groceries at Skagway’s two grocery stores or home improvement supplies at the town’s hardware store, or to patronize the town’s DVD rental store. Receipts proving the purchase was local were required.
To Cremata and other local leaders like Jaime Bricker, president of the Skagway Traditional Council, the rationale was simple: ensure the town’s survival until tourists returned.
“We had one goal a year ago: make it through to the ‘21 season,” the mayor said. “Highly successful. We’re going to make it to the ‘21 season.” He paused. “And so, now, we have to make a new goal.”
Cremata was referring to the fact that on Feb. 4, the government of Canada extended a ban on cruise ships in its territorial waters until Feb. 28, 2022. This decision effectively has canceled Skagway’s summer 2021 season.
“There’s always a dichotomy in Skagway. As much as people might complain about going down Broadway (during the summer), people love tourists here. And I do, too.”
— Peter Kujawinski, a Chicago-based writer, is the co-author of five books.
APOLLO BAY, AUSTRALIA
‘Zombie companies’ try to hang on
Before the pandemic, Chinese tourists would stream off big buses into the restaurants in Apollo Bay, a small beach town in southeastern Australia, and a popular stop on a time- constrained day tour down the coast.
They’d fill eateries like the Apollo Surfcoast Chinese Restaurant, a beach-facing diner geared to serve nearly 200 customers at a time wanting a taste of home in a hurry. Now, the restaurant is dark at lunchtime.
Michelle Chen opened the restaurant in 2012 after traveling along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and finding nothing for her “Chinese stomach.” With Chinese day-trippers rapidly growing in the region, she saw an unmissable opportunity, which, until last year, was paying off.
China overtook New Zealand as Australia’s largest foreign tourist market in 2017. In the state of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, Chinese visitors spent 3.4 billion Australian dollars ($2.6 billion) in 2019 (more than the next 10 international markets combined) and made up nearly 40% of all international overnight visitor spending. That same year, 45% of Chinese overnight visitors to the state visited the Great Ocean Road region.
But when Australia banned flights from China on Feb. 1, 2020, then barred foreign travel in March, it was like someone had shut off the tap.
Strict border closures, lockdowns and mandatory quarantine have allowed Australia to suppress COVID-19 extraordinarily well, with 909 total deaths among its population of 25 million. But Australia could stay closed through 2021. And businesses that rely on foreigners may not hang on.
Like many Australians with business or employment affected by the pandemic, Max Zaytsev, who runs tours with Bilby Travel, receives a support payment called JobKeeper of 1,000 Australian dollars ($770) from the government every two weeks — but this is set to expire at the end of March.
“It looks like we’re still alive because they’re paying us JobKeeper,” Zaytsev said of tour businesses like his. “We’re zombie companies.”
— Tacey Rychter
‘Having a meal delivered is not life’
In normal times, the restaurant Aux Lyonnais is a go-to place for the classic Paris business lunch of comfort and conviviality. These days, the eatery’s blood-red facade looks the same, but inside, it is quiet. The simple iron-framed oak tables are naked without their runners, place settings and balloon wineglasses. Some of the bistro chairs have been put into storage.
And Alain Ducasse, Aux Lyonnais’ owner, looks a bit lost. Over the years, Michelin has showered him with stars; the rich and powerful have flocked to his restaurants in France and around the world. Between 40% and 60% of the clientele at Ducasse’ establishments in Paris were tourists.
The pandemic upended his world; indeed, the world of cuisine in all of France. Restaurants and cafes throughout the country are shut tight; there is no road map for when they might reopen.
Like many chefs here, Ducasse, 64, has turned to takeout (either for delivery or “click & collect”), but not just any takeout. He turned Aux Lyonnais (temporarily) into “Naturaliste” and transformed the kitchen that once served classics like pike quenelles with creme fraiche-heavy Nantua sauce and calves’ liver with parsley and potatoes into a staging area for what he calls “healthy” fare — no meat, salt, sugar or dairy and heavy on fish, soy, fruits and vegetables.
Dozens of boxes filled with meals to be delivered are piled high (100 to 150 every day) along one wall of the restaurant.
For the moment, takeout is keeping at least a few of Ducasse’s staff employed and perhaps bringing in some money. But dining in Paris is about the food, of course, and it is just as much about “le partage,” the shared experience of celebrating together in a restaurant space.
“When you get six people around a table in France for a good meal, the ritual starts,” said Ducasse. “You open a bottle of Champagne. Then you discuss what you are going to eat. Then you order, and when the food comes, you discuss what you are eating. Afterward, you discuss what you ate. And finally, you talk about what you will eat next week. People want to socialize over a bottle of good wine, to look at beautiful, well-dressed women, not to just sit at the kitchen table looking at their spouses.
“Having a meal delivered to your kitchen is not life.”
— Elaine Sciolino