For Bali, where tourism made up 54% of its economy, the drop was even more stark. For the whole of 2021, the Indonesian island received just 45 foreign tourists, compared with 6.2 million in 2019.

In November 2021, a study by the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, found that 1.6 million people lost their jobs in the tourism industry in five countries in Asia where data was available (Brunei, Thailand, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Vietnam). Tourism job losses were four times higher than in other industries.

Tourism isn’t back

While this week’s reopening represents a notable shift among some Asian countries that had previously relied on strict border restrictions to control covid, the days of casually buying a ticket a day or two before a flight have not returned. The costs of RT-PCR tests, specialized insurance, hotel quarantines, and the potential of catching covid while traveling means there is still friction, and risk, involved in a beach vacation.

Even as the tourist powerhouses of Southeast Asia may be wearying of the hyper-vigilance they’ve maintained at their borders for nearly two years, the decision to revive tourism is not unilateral. Before the pandemic, China made up the largest share of foreign tourist arrivals in most Southeast Asian countries. The county’s strict covid-zero policies deter citizens from making international trips. With Chinese tourists still locked in, countries like Thailand won’t see the numbers of tourist arrivals of previous years.

For other places, like Kyoto, the pandemic was an opportunity to rethink the reliance on tourism, with some concluding that they don’t want tourists back at all.

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