Chaos expected during summer travel boom

The human urge to get out and explore is helping fuel the surge in travel, flights and museums despite rising coronavirus infections and inflation.

JERUSALEM, Israel — At a tourism conference in Phuket last month, Thailand’s prime minister looked down at attendees and asked a question with a predictable answer.

“Are you ready?” asked Prayut Chan-ocha, dramatically removing his mask and launching the country’s hoped-for economic reset after more than two years of coronavirus-induced restrictions. As the crowd shouted her response — yes, according to local media — she might have spoken for the entire pandemic-stricken world.

But a full recovery could take as long as the disaster itself in 11 countries, according to forecasts and interviews by The Associated Press in June. They suggest the hoped-for recovery is less like a definitive recovery — and more like a bumpy path out of one deep and dark cave.

Some places, like the Côte d’Azur and the US Midwest, are contributing more to the rise than others — like closed “zero-COVID” China, which was the world’s leading source of tourists and their spending prior to the pandemic.

The human urge to get out and explore is helping fuel the ascent, filling flights and museums despite rising coronavirus infections and inflation. But economic urgency is the real driver for a $3.5 trillion industry in 2019 that the United Nations estimates has lost about that much during the pandemic. It is estimated that tourism provides work for one in ten people on earth.

Many places, particularly those that have eased security requirements, are seeing what passes for a go-go summer of sunny optimism and adventure.

“They say it’s the summer of revenge trips,” said Theresa Starta, 52, of Pittsburgh, as she gazed across one of Amsterdam’s canals at crowds thronging into the Dutch capital. “Everything around the world seems so bad so it’s nice to see some things coming back.”

“The road to full recovery is very long, but at least we’re back,” said Sanga Ruangwattanakul, president of the Khao San Road Business Association in Bangkok.

Despite travelers’ rushing return, challenges and uncertainties cast shadows on the post-pandemic landscape. A full recovery is generally not expected until at least 2024. Concerns hovered around a long list of issues, including inflation, supply chain issues, rising infection rates and labor shortages.

Before June was over, travel in the summer of 2022 was one of chaos. Airports and airlines, which had been making cuts in the depths of the pandemic, struggled to meet demand, leading to canceled flights, lost luggage and other miscellaneous nightmares. Frightened tourists were booking trips at shorter notice, making it harder for hotels, tour operators and others to plan, industry insiders said.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also increased the risk of the uneven recovery and contributed to inflation – a factor that could become a major drag even as other pandemic pains subside.

“It’s really the fall season that’s a concern,” said Sandra Carvao, head of market research and competitiveness at the United Nations World Tourism Organization. If inflation continues to rise, particularly interest rates, “families will need to reconsider their spending.”

With all virus travel restrictions lifted, safety is unlikely to take a backseat.

“The most important thing for people when they decide to go on holiday is health and safety. It’s always been like this,” said Simon Hudson, a tourism professor at the University of South Carolina, who is writing a book on the pandemic recovery. “This will take a while.”

Starting with the bright spots, the United Nations reported that international arrivals nearly tripled in the first quarter of 2022 from the same three months last year. March this year brought the healthiest results since the pandemic began, with arrivals up almost 50% of 2019 levels. That could rise to as much as 70% of 2019 arrivals by the end of this year, UNWTO said in its im May revised forecasts.

This has produced encouraging signs in certain places, from Israel to the United States, Italy, Mexico and France. Resets like in Thailand are on everyone’s lips. The United States has big plans lined up for 2023, like a cruise with some of Broadway’s biggest stars.

These projections are playing out locally, generally in locales that had aggressive and agile limitations early on and have adapted by removing many protections as vaccination rates increased and the Omicron variant proved less deadly than other variants proved.

Foreign tourists are flocking to places like the French Riviera, where supply chain problems are making everything more expensive — including champagne, a restaurant owner said.

“Since spring it’s summer here, every single night,” said Elie Dagher, manager of La Villa Massenet in Nice. Since April, the bistro has been full of visitors from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, but especially from Great Britain and the USA.

A rebound isn’t necessary in Branson, Missouri, known for its country music shows and outdoor attractions. It hosted a record 10 million visitors last year and appears on track to surpass that, said Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Jeff Johnson, co-owner of Shepherd of the Hills adventure park, credits a brief closure in 2020 to a loyal customer base drawn from nearby states and cities like St. Louis and Kansas City. “When we reopened,” he said, “it never slowed down.”

In Italy, tourists – particularly from the US – have been returning in droves this year. Anticipation for Easter was particularly notable in Rome, reflecting pent-up demand to visit perennial All-Star attractions like the Sistine Chapel and Colosseum.

“There is a huge need to travel, just like popping a (cork) out of a bottle,” said Bernabò Bocca, president of the national hotel association Federalberghi. The moment Italy eased security measures in April, “a tsunami of bookings poured in from the United States to States at an unprecedented rate.”

Hopes are high for Thailand, too, after announcing last month that the country was dropping virtually all requirements other than proof of vaccination or a lack of a negative coronavirus test.

Already the return of tourists has breathed new life into local tourism. Bangkok’s famous backpacker street, Khao San Road, which was almost deserted last year, sees up to 5,000 daily visitors – promising numbers but a far cry from the 30,000 daily visitors before the pandemic, according to Ruangwattanakul, president of the trade association.

Thailand is an insightful look at the struggle to recover, with China a key contributor. By 2019, Chinese tourists accounted for a quarter of foreign arrivals in Thailand, but there is no sign they will return in such numbers.

The fickle nature of post-pandemic ascension has been seen from Israel to India.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said restaurant owner Vaibhav Khulbe in Dharmsala, India, where 4 million visitors are expected in the country this year, compared to 11 million in 2019.

Like everywhere else in the world, Israel is struggling to match its 2019 record tourism figure of 4.5 million visitors. Despite the lifting of all restrictions, Israel expects fewer than half — about 2 million — visitors this year, tourism ministry officials say. Adding to the other concerns, political unrest is an issue following a spate of deadly Palestinian violence in Israel in the spring, along with the government collapse last month.

Still, the ministry reports a steady, albeit gradual, increase. An unusual convergence of religious spring holidays for Jews, Christians and Muslims contributed to a rush of visitors in April. By May, the number of visitors rose to about 57% of the same month last year.

But the recovery has been uneven for many, particularly in the occupied West Bank.

“We were expecting at least this month to have really more people coming, like May, June, but it’s still very slow,” said Wisam Salsaa, manager of the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem, the fabled ancient city where President Joe Biden is expected to visit in July during a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Designed by London-based artist Banksy, the colorful hotel is locally run and well-known — but it struggles. It expanded physically during the pandemic but was forced to reduce its staff from around 50 to 32 people now. In June, the occupancy rate was around 30%.

“Tourism here,” Salsaa said, “is very fragile.”

The following Associated Press journalists contributed to this story: Barbara Surk in Nice, France; Joey Capelletti in Chicago, Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Fanuel Morelli in Rome, Ciaran Giles in Madrid, Ashwini Bhatia in Dharmsala, India, Jim Salter in St. Louis, Mark Stevenson and Maria Verza in Mexico- City and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok. Chaos expected during summer travel boom

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