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Asia’s tourist spots brace for leaner times as coronavirus keeps Chinese visitors at home

Tourists at Angkor Wat, the ancient temple complex that is Cambodia’s biggest tourist attraction, have been wearing masks this week to guard against coronavirus. (Anna Fifield/The Washington Post)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Tourists roaming around the ancient Cambodian temples at Angkor Wat are used to having to protect themselves. Usually, it's against the sun and the indefatigable hawkers.

But as coronavirus has spread from China to tourism hot spots across Asia — aided by the mass movement of people during the Lunar New Year holiday — many people are looking for ways to protect themselves against the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment that has claimed more than 200 lives.

“We had hand sanitizer from China and our hotel gave us masks,” said Roberto Rubio, an American living in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao. He and his wife, Jenessa, left China on Jan. 19, before the severity of the outbreak was clear.

They were wearing light blue surgical masks as they toured the ruins at Angkor Wat, which is usually packed with Chinese tourists during the Lunar New Year holiday but was notably quiet this past week.

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Now, their return flight has been canceled and their workplaces are offering to extend their breaks. “We haven’t decided what to do,” Jenessa Rubio said, with a shrug.

The outbreak of the coronavirus — which has been detected in all of China’s neighbors, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia — has cast a pall over a regional tourism industry that has become increasingly reliant on China’s burgeoning middle class.

The Chinese government has canceled all outbound group tours, while a sizable number of those traveling independently have canceled their plans.

It’s an outcome that is complicated for China’s neighbors, and its impact is only just beginning to be felt.

Avoiding Chinese tourists

It’s not unusual to see Asian tourists wearing the kinds of masks more frequently associated with dental hygienists. But this week, everyone from New Zealanders to Russians, Chileans to Sri Lankans has been donning masks as they travel around places that are popular with Chinese tourists.

This concern about health is looking a lot like profiling.

Some even say they are going out of their way to avoid Chinese tourists, and Mandarin-speaking travelers like Taiwanese and Singaporeans have noticed people putting on masks when they approach.

Many tour guides at Angkor Wat are wearing masks given out by their agencies.

“The government has told us to wear masks, but I don’t think they can really protect us, and I can’t wear a mask up here every day,” said Bing, a security guard who gave only his first name as he was sitting at the top of three very steep flights of stone steps at the Ta Keo temple, which has been renovated with Chinese aid money.

“The Chinese tourists still come. We just hope it gets better soon,” he said.

One traveler from Shanghai who had scaled Ta Keo said all Chinese tourists at his hotel were having their temperatures checked every day and had been asked where they were from.

“You’d better not say you’re from Wuhan,” said the man, declining to give his name.

Traditional Chinese spots in Siem Reap, like the hot pot restaurants and the huge duty-free store with its happy year of the rat signs, are almost empty.

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For many, Chinese comprise the largest portion of their foreign tourists, and they arrive with more money to burn. From the hotels of Siem Reap to the cosmetic stores of Seoul, Chinese-speaking staff are in hot demand, and Chinese payment apps are welcome.

But there’s now a flip side.

Calls for 'blockade'

In South Korea, the detection of six cases of coronavirus brought some calls for an entry ban on Chinese visitors.

Shim Jae-chul, the floor leader of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, called for a “fundamental blockade by such means as an entry ban on Chinese tourists,” while an online petition asking President Moon Jae-in to ban Chinese nationals from entering South Korea drew more than 590,000 signatures in a week.

Some 130,000 Chinese tourists were expected in South Korea during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, part of a rebound since a politically motivated nadir in 2017. Chinese tourist numbers had grown by 44 percent since then.

In Japan, businesses around the country are reporting a slump from last year, when more than 720,000 Chinese tourists visited during the month around Lunar New Year. One travel agency that prepares group tours for Chinese tourists told the Yomiuri newspaper that bookings for some 20,000 visitors had been canceled this week.

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“The biggest foreseeable risk is that demand from inbound tourists will fall excessively,” said Hideo Kumano, executive chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute in Tokyo. Chinese tourists have been a “lifeline” after a sharp fall in the number of South Korean visitors, he said.

Kimono rental shops, where Chinese women go to get done up in traditional Japanese dress and hairstyles before they wander the streets, have seen a spate of cancellations.

“We’ve seen the number of reservations by Chinese customers fall to just one-tenth in recent days,” said Takayuki Watanabe, the president of a kimono rental shop in the Tokyo tourist spot of Asakusa. Worse still, Japanese customers, aware that many Chinese go to the kimono stores, have started canceling too, afraid of coming into contact with Chinese travelers.

Business owners in the southwestern hot spring city of Beppu, meanwhile, are disappointed that a cruise ship, scheduled to bring nearly 2,000 Chinese tourists next week on its maiden trip there, had been canceled.

“Because Chinese tourists are known as big shoppers, I think [business owners] are disappointed at the news,” said Shota Kato, a Beppu tourism official. The city had even been preparing for the welcoming ceremony for the ship.

Malaysia has tightened visa requirements for Chinese, while the Chinese territory of Hong Kong has drastically curtailed transport links with the mainland. Countries including Vietnam and Thailand have increased screening measures for arrivals into the country.

Thailand’s Tourism Authority says it expects the number of Chinese tourists to fall from 9 million to 7 million this year because of the virus.

'You can't take away the fear'

The spread of the coronavirus has caused even countries that are politically amenable to China to impose restrictions.

The Philippines, which welcomed almost 1.4 million Chinese tourists in the first nine months of last year alone and has set itself a target of 4 million Chinese tourists by 2022, has stopped granting visas upon arrival for Chinese nationals and refused entry to visitors from the city of Wuhan, where the virus began.

But the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, said there was no need to ban travelers from mainland China or to completely suspend flights between the two countries.

Some hotel operators have, however, started taking matters into their own hands by turning away Chinese nationals.

Lisa Almerida, a tour operator on the Philippines island of Coron, known for its beaches and diving, said she encountered a Chinese family with three children who were searching desperately for somewhere to stay after being turned away at several hotels.

“We’re safe, but you can’t take away the fear,” Almerida said. “I had four Chinese tourists. I felt an impulse to wear a mask, but I was too embarrassed.”

It’s a similar situation in Vietnam, where authorities have blocked travelers from the part of China where the virus began, while the government has said workers returning from China after the new year holiday must be quarantined for 14 days under the supervision of local health officials.

A hotel on the island of Phu Quoc and a restaurant in the beach resort of Danang have put up signs saying: “At this time we are not receiving guests from China.”

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In Cambodia, an impoverished country that has benefited enormously from both Chinese tourism and investment in recent years, Prime Minister Hun Sen has said there was no need to take drastic action like blocking all air traffic from China. The six weekly flights from Wuhan have been suspended, but others continue.

“Stopping flights from China would mean killing Cambodia’s economy,” he told reporters at a news conference called to address the concerns over the virus. “In good times, we stay together. But in difficult times, we run away [from China]?”

An exodus in Chinese tourists would inflict new pain on Cambodia’s economy at a time when it is already reeling from the departure of almost half a million Chinese who left when Hun Sen banned online gambling.

Chinese tourists accounted for more than one-third of travelers to Cambodia last year, with 2.18 million arriving in the first 11 months of 2019, according to Cambodia’s Ministry of Tourism.

“Please don’t frighten Chinese people,” Hun Sen continued, according to local reports. “We are working to help them. We help treat Chinese citizens who are staying in Cambodia.”

For citizens of other countries traveling in Cambodia, however, the virus has caused some unanticipated shopping trips.

Holly Quinonez of Operation Pop Smoke, which takes veterans on trips designed to alleviate post-traumatic stress disorder, also left Washington state before the severity of the outbreak was known.

“We cased Phnom Penh but we couldn’t find any masks,” she said at the entrance to Ta Keo. “In the end, we had to buy some from a person on the street.”

Min Joo Kim in Seoul, Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, Regine Cabato in Manila and Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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