Time to jolt the Tourism Sector out of its Coma?

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Time to jolt the Tourism Sector out of its Coma?
Illustration: LEONARDO A. PUTONG

IO – Almost two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the tourism industry is still waiting to struggle out of the doldrums. The pandemic has all but devastated the once-vibrant sector, causing it to lose a staggering $4 trillion, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). Since the outbreak, the sector has been placed in a state of suspended animation. All tourism destinations around the world are affected by the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. One by one, tourist destinations across the world have been forced to shut in the bid to contain the highly-transmissible virus. Tourists are understandably worried, as the
vicious virus has now claimed more than 4.1 million patients worldwide.

The impact is devastating. Hotel occupancy everywhere has fallen drastically. Restaurants are staring at financial ruin. The aviation sector is paralyzed. Many tour and travel agencies have folded. Crafts, souvenirs
and associated business ground to a halt. Countries most reliant on tourism have seen their economy crash.

But as Covid-19 cases around the world began to dwindle, a number of countries, including Indonesia, are starting to reopen to foreign travelers, of course under strict conditions and requirements designed to impede local transmission. In Indonesia, especially, the progress has been no less dramatic, a far cry from its mid-July second wave carnage, fueled by the so-called Delta variant. Daily counts of Covid-19 cases and deaths dropped to 620 and 39, respectively, on Monday (11/10), the lowest figure since end of June.

Based on Covid-19 Task Force figures, Covid-19 cases has begun to fall, from August-October 2021. The first week of August saw 229,598 cases. The 7-day rolling average has since steadily dropped to 193,925 (August 8-14), 133,507 (August 15-21), 99,356 (August 22-28), 57,213 (August 29-4), 40,115 (September 5-11), 24,797 (September 12-18), 17,724 (September 19- 25), 11,889 (September 26-October 2) and further down below the 10,000 threshold, to 8,896 (October 3-9).

In total, since the virus was first detected on March 2, 2020, Indonesia has had 4,227,932 cases, with 4,060,851 recoveries, 24,430 hospitalizations and
self-isolation, and 142,651 deaths. Even though the caseload has fallen, the government and epidemiologists remind the public to keep abiding by health protocols. The likelihood of a third wave, post-Christmas and New Year holidays, cannot be ruled out, especially given that the virus continues to mutate, producing new variants capable of defeating vaccines and antibodies.

The number of patients in centralized quarantine centers in Bali continues to decrease, occupying only 391 beds (8 percent) of the total capacity of as of
4,570 beds, on Sunday (11/10). The Bali provincial administration announced that it has 736 active cases, 184 people undergoing hospitalization, and 161 self-isolating. According to I Made Rentin, chief of Bali’s Disaster Mitigation Agency (BPBD), Covid-19 cases in Bali have begun to trend down over the past month. All regencies/municipalities in Bali are now in a “yellow zone” or low risk category.

Will this be the long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel for the battered tourism industry?

The Return of Tourism
Tourism is one of the priority sectors, because it employs close to 34 million people across Indonesia. The country’s tourism industry has great potential, with its natural beauty and cultural diversity attracting legions of domestic and international tourists. It is an important driver of job creation, a major contributor to GDP growth and a vital foreign exchange earner. However,
due to the protracted Covid-19 crisis, the number of visitors in the first two months of this year was still below last year’s monthly average. In January and February this year, the number of foreign arrivals was recorded the lowest in five years, down by 88.25% compared to the same period last year, according to Statistics Indonesia (BPS). This is not unique to Indonesia, however, as other countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico also experienced the same thing.

Hotel occupancy rates in Indonesia remain at 30.35% on average, even with room rates at a 40% discount. The worst hit destinations are Bali, Bangka Belitung, and Riau Islands. While many tourism and hospitality workers were laid off, 2021 is seen as the right time for them to return to work, as the sector slowly reopens. The country also needs a superior ready-to-work
workforce to rebuild its tourism reeling under the pandemic. Tourism industry players agree that one way to help the sector recover is to allow people’s mobility while enforcing strict health protocols, in order to promote domestic tourism.

Safe reopening
According to UNWTO, 2020 was the worst year in living memory for the global tourism industry. Overall, the number of international arrivals fell
74%, with 1 billion fewer tourists, due to a raft of travel restrictions and border closures everywhere.

For example, Finland only reopened in July 2021, requiring foreign arrivals to only show Covid-19 vaccine certificates, instead of swab test results. To enter the country, foreign tourists must be double-jabbed with the second dose injected at least 14 days before their departure. However, Finland only recognizes seven brands of vaccine (Russian-made Sputnik V not among them). Children under 18 traveling with their parents are allowed entry without having to show any certificate. In Southeast Asia, Thailand has
also started to reopen its popular destinations. Since July 1, 2021, under the Phuket Sandbox scheme, tourists from 63 countries and three territories can again enjoy its crystal blue water and white sand beach.

What about Indonesia? The country was still battling its second wave outbreak in mid-July, triggered by post-Lebaran surge of infections caused by Delta variant. Despite its relative success in bringing the number of cases down during the first half of the year, the more virulent variant quickly overwhelmed its fragile health care system, at one time exceeding 50,000 cases in a day to become a global epicenter, surpassing even India.

Previously, the government launched the “Work From Bali” (WFB) program, to be conducted with strict health protocols to boost the island’s economy. To show his seriousness, the Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno even worked out of his office in Bali. However, when the emergency social restrictions (PPKM) were imposed, the program was temporarily suspended. It is likely that the WFB will continue after the PPKM is lifted because the impact for the Island of the Gods is very positive. In fact, the pilot project can even be expanded to other tourist areas.