‘No one comes here any more’: the human cost as Covid wipes out tourism | Global development

In March last year, it was predicted that the global travel shutdown would cause international arrivals to plummet by 20 to 30% by the end of 2020.

Six weeks later, the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) revised their warning: international arrivals could fall by up to 80% – equating to a billion fewer tourists and the worst crisis in the history of the industry.

“We are back to levels of travel we saw 30 years ago,” says Sandra Carvão, chief of tourism market intelligence at the agency.

Eighteen months into the pandemic, domestic tourism is bouncing back, but efforts to open up international travel have been hampered by the emergence of new virus variants and by the variations in vaccine policy and availability between countries. Recovery is “very fragile and uneven”, according to the UNWTO. Almost 50% of experts it surveyed predicted that travel is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.

The economic cost of the global tourism freeze is immense. A UNWTO report published with UN Conference on Trade and Development at the end of June forecast a loss of more than $4tn (£2.9tn) to global GDP by the end of 2021. Developing countries are predicted to take the biggest hit, with Central America suffering the most.

The human cost is vast. The challenges for hoteliers and tour operators are huge, but also the pandemic has upturned millions of lives in tourism communities across the globe. We visit four such communities – three are on England’s red-list countries, the fourth is amber-listed – to find out how the crisis has affected people and whether or not they want the tourists to return.

Chitwan national park, Nepal, November 2020

Chitwan national park, Nepal

Ashish Kadariya was born on the edge of a lush forest in the south of Nepal, home to the endangered Bengal tiger and one-horned rhino. Today he finds himself in a different kind of jungle; one of towering buildings, six-lane highways and oppressive heat.

Kadariya, 25, used to be a guide at Chitwan national park, one of south Asia’s top wildlife sanctuaries, but when the pandemic struck and tourists stopped coming, he lost his only source of income. With few options, he borrowed about £3,600 – far more than his annual wage as a guide – to pay a recruitment agent to find him a job overseas. Now he works far from the forest, patrolling the grounds of a luxury hotel in the United Arab Emirates.

Former wildlife guide, Ashish Kadariya, at Chitwan national park in Nepal

“We have to work 12 hours a day, 30 days a month. I miss my country and my profession, but I don’t have any options; because of Covid, I was jobless,” says Kadariya.

The pandemic has taken a devastating toll on Nepal. Tourism is a mainstay of the impoverished country’s economy, generating about 1.3m jobs and £550m a year. In the year before the pandemic, Nepal welcomed almost 1.2 million visitors – including more than 60,000 from the UK – but from April to December 2020, just 9,417 arrived.

Tourist numbers peak in spring and autumn, when the weather is at its most convivial, but the first wave wiped out both seasons. This year, as Nepal was gearing up for the spring peak, the second Covid wave struck. Now, as autumn approaches, the industry faces a fourth season without visitors.

Nepal’s reputation as a world-class trekking and climbing destination is well known, but the wildlife reserves along its southern plains are equally spectacular. Chitwan national park attracted more than 142,000 foreign tourists in the year before the pandemic, as well as many thousands of Nepalese, drawn by the prospect of sightings of tigers, rhinos and elephants.

The park sustains the livelihoods of thousands; hotel staff, transport operators and guides. Rajendra Dhami, the head of the Nature Guide Association, says there are about 500 professional guides in Chitwan. When asked how many foreign visitors he has seen since April, he hesitates and then answers, “Three or four”.

Dhami says guides are turning to farming or manual labour to survive, with some like Kadariya, going overseas. “The pandemic has given us a big problem,” says Dhami. “We are losing our jobs and the government is doing nothing for us. We are not worried about the coronavirus, we are just trying to survive.”

As well as livelihoods, the pandemic has put conservation in the park at risk. As guides look for other work, vital knowledge about animal behaviour and biodiversity is being lost.

“The nature guide’s skill is unexplainable, you can’t find it in a book. So when tourism restarts people may not get real guides, real nature lovers,” says Dhami.

Some are calling on the government to prioritise vaccines for guides and others in the industry. “If the government can provide vaccinations, then we can open Nepal in the same way as Dubai and the Maldives,” says Dhananjay Regmi, Nepal Tourism Board’s chief executive.

A man walks along empty streets in Thamel, Kathmandu. Once a major tourist hub, the area is deserted and shops are closed after the government imposed restrictions on travel and gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid.

But vaccine rollout remains slow, with about 10% of the population fully vaccinated. Efforts to procure vaccines were hit by India’s decision to halt vaccine exports. But, many blame Nepal’s political leaders who, they say, have been preoccupied with the infighting that has seen a recent change of government, rather than tackling the virus.

“Vaccines are very important for tourism, not only for the guides but for the tourists. If they don’t feel comfortable, they will not come, but if we are vaccinated, they will feel safe,” says Dhami.

Until then, Nepalis like Kadariya are stuck overseas in jobs they don’t want. “I totally regret coming here. My life was far better in Nepal. We guides are the main pillars of tourism, but nobody supports us. They don’t know our value.”
by Pete Pattisson

Santiago de Okola, beneath the Sleeping Dragon rock formation, on the shore of Lake Titicaca.

Santiago de Okola, Bolivia

With the late morning sun shining through glassless windows, Juan Callo, 58, is on his knees hammering at the foundation beneath him in preparation for installing new flooring. This is not the usual work for this Aymara farmer.

In Santiago de Okola, a 180-family village on the shore of the sacred Lake Titicaca, 150km from La Paz, a 15-year-old community tourism project has stalled due to the pandemic. Many townspeople have been left without an income, surviving on what potatoes, quinoa and beans they can grow, as their families have done for generations.

“There are no tourists now, and there is no source of work,” Callo says. “Not a single person comes here any more.”

But Callo continues constructing a space where small groups of visitors can spend a few nights in his home. People are investing their meagre savings to make improvements for the day when tourists return.

Four of Callo’s five children now work in textile mills in Brazil, leaving him and his wife to care for a teenage granddaughter. This situation repeats itself across Bolivia’s altiplano, with many towns left in the hands of their oldest citizens.

To protect its elderly people from Covid-19 Santiago de Okola shut itself off. Roads into town were closed for four months from May last year, and again in January and June this year, coinciding with waves of cases in the area.

Juan Callo inspects his last crop of his tarwi, a nutritious Andean bean. By August, most crops have been harvested, leaving residents to survive on supplies stored in their homes.

  • Juan Callo inspects his last crop of tarwi, a nutritious Andean bean. By August, most crops have been harvested, leaving people to depend on supplies stored in their homes

These closures were difficult for Callo, a member of Santiago de Okola’s tourism association (ASITURSO) – a group of local families who organise visitor activities including homestays, day treks, traditional medicine and weaving workshops. ASITURSO welcomed more than 700 foreign tourists and nearly 450 Bolivians in 2019, with each spending, on average, $20 to $30 (£15 to £20) a day in the town.

Community tourism in Santiago de Okola began in 2006 as a vision of Tomas Laruta, a farmer who died from Covid-19 in January at the age of 94. He had worked as a guide well into his 80s, and had a dream of sharing this corner of Lake Titicaca with the world, to the benefit of his neighbours.

Today, Laruta’s daughter Gabriela, a kindergarten teacher from the city of El Alto, has returned to the town to take up her father’s work.

Gabriela Laruta, daughter of ASITURSO founder Tomas Laruta, with her niece at her father’s house, which the family is converting into bedrooms for tourists who they hope will come for homestays in the community.

  • Gabriela Laruta, daughter of ASITURSO founder Tomas Laruta, with her niece at her father’s house, which the family is converting into bedrooms for tourists

“My father’s dream was that everyone comes to know his house and the community where he lived, where he was born,” says Gabriela. “That is why he founded this organisation, as a way for everyone to unite, so they can work together to help the community.”

But since the pandemic Laruta’s dream has been on hold. The town museum, a small room housing antique handicrafts donated by neighbours, remains padlocked, its guestbook containing a single, dateless entry. A community-funded hostel and visitor centre project that began three years ago sits half-built.

According to the country’s chamber of tourism operators (CANOTUR), Lake Titicaca is one of Bolivia’s top tourism destinations, which include the Salar de Uyuni and the jungle areas of Rurrenabaque. An estimated 1.5 million foreign visitors came to Bolivia in 2019. Last year, that crashed to just over 375,000, forcing businesses across the country to close.

A billboard in Santiago de Okola welcomes visitors to ‘The House of the Dragon’, the large rock formation that is one of the town’s main tourist attractions.

The Bolivian government attempted to help the sector, offering extra holiday days to state workers. But Bolivia requires travellers to quarantine for 10 days on entering the country, though without mechanisms to enforce the measure. Officials are considering how to lift this requirement without risking public health.

“We have to live with the virus, we cannot stay locked up,” says Eliana Ampuero, Bolivia’s vice-minister of tourism. “To be human is to move around, to exchange with other cultures, to know other places. This pandemic does not have to change the very nature of being human.”

Bolivia is now well into its peak tourism season of June to September. Callo has resigned himself to losing a second year of tourists, but remains optimistic as he makes the improvements for future visitors.

“I hope travellers come back so that we can start working,” he says. “We want to be with the tourists again, with our guests.”
by William Wroblewski

City of Murghab in the Pamir mountains.

Pamir mountains, Tajikistan

“We don’t run a hotel. This is a guesthouse,” says Aigul Abdukadyrova, seated on the floor of his home in Murghab, a town high up in Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains. “That means we sit and talk with our guests, share our experiences and learn about theirs.”

Even in good times, this town of about 7,500, in a part of Tajikistan abutting Afghanistan and western China, feels like a lonely corner of the world.

At an altitude of almost 3,700 metres (12,000 ft) nothing but stubby grass flourishes and the air is thin. A ragged road portentously dubbed the Pamir highway runs through a lunar landscape blanketed in snow for more than half the year. It is only truly comfortable for outsiders from May to September.

Murghab’s heyday was when it was a Soviet military outpost. When the base went in 2002, visitors and jobs dried up. The mini-tourism boom of the last decade was a lifesaver for families like the Abdukadyrovs, until Covid arrived.

The mushrooming of modest guesthouses meant those passing through were leaving some of their money behind. At the last count, there were about 200 guesthouses in the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan province (GBAO), Tajikistan’s easternmost region.

To get their business started, the Abdukadyrovs took out a loan and built a new room at their simple, one-storey homestead. Aigul retired from her job in a local government office. Her husband and children helped. For eight years they did well.

“Our standard of living changed rapidly. The market was healthy. Visitors bought handicrafts. Anybody who owned a car took the tourists to see the sights,” she says.

Covid plunged Murghab and nearby villages back into isolation. As if the pandemic were not bad enough, an ugly row earlier this year between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan has led to the closure of their shared Pamir border crossing. Tours typically involved driving tourists, usually Europeans, from one country to the other. Two successive seasons have been lost and it is unclear when things might return to normal.

The tourist information office in Murghab, a former Soviet military outpost. The town’s mini tourism boom ended after Covid and border conflict caused visitor numbers to drop and jobs to disappear.

The pain has been felt all over Tajikistan. In 2019, a flow of 1.2 million visitors generated about $250m (£180m) – a large amount for the weak economy. Last year, leisure sector officials say numbers fell to 350,000 – and many of those were unlikely to have been tourists.

Loss of money is crushing. But the solitude also hurts.

Aigul recalls with fondness the German student who came one year to study Kyrgyz, the language spoken by Murghab’s dominant ethnic group. They became such good friends that he returned with his parents the year after.

“It seemed to me that we had become one family,” says Aigul. “I miss tourists. When they came to us, we did not feel cut off. On the contrary, I felt like we were part of this world.”
by Mehrangez Tursunsoza, translated by Peter Leonard

Fishing boats on Cape Maclear, Malawi.

Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi

On the sandy roadside a few metres from the shore of Lake Malawi, 48-year-old Potiphar Tilinga sits on a small wooden chair chatting with the grocery shopkeeper across the road. Behind him, an array of crafts, including salad spoons, fridge magnets, picture frames and key fobs, is laid out under a thatched shade. Before the pandemic, Tilinga made about 150, 000 Malawian kwacha (£130) a month selling his wares. Now no one comes to buy his souvenirs.

“This is my life. I sent my children to private schools but now I don’t know what to do. Nothing is working. I have five children and look after two orphans. All of them depend on me. After the second wave of Covid-19, Malawians came and gave us business, but now it’s stopped completely,” says Tilinga.

Tilinga lives in Chembe, known to most outsiders as Cape Maclear, a village turned tourist hotspot in Lake Malawi national park. July and August are peak season, when tourists fill its affordable lodges and hostels and spend their days kayaking around the freshwater lake’s rocky islands, swimming among tropical fish, and joining guided cultural tours.

Before pandemic Potiphar Tilinga sold souvenirs to tourists, now he is struggling to make a living.

But as Malawi suffers a third wave of coronavirus, the tourism industry is enduring a second summer without visitors. Before Covid-19 about 800,000 tourists visited each year; the pandemic has caused a 75% drop in visitors, resulting in 35,000 job losses.

Among those who have lost jobs is Harry Dickson, 40, chair of the Cape Maclear tour guide association, whose 62 members run activities such as hiking, village tours and traditional dances.

“[My work meant] I could afford to buy basic necessities and pay school fees for my brothers and sisters and support my parents. I have been taking care of my seven children from that money; now there is nothing. International tourism is completely gone. Malawians are scared to come here. We’re living by chance, not choice,” says Dickson.

“Cape Maclear is very tough at the moment, especially fishing and tourism, the predominant sources of livelihoods,” says Allan Joffe, 49, a Briton who came to visit Chembe 14 years ago and stayed. He owns Mgoza lodge with chalets and dorms. His wife is a doctor at a local clinic. Before Covid, Joffe employed 32 people; now, with the lodge operating at 20% capacity, he has just 19 staff, most on reduced wages and hours. Some people have been forced to leave the town because they can no longer afford to live there.

As well as those directly employed, there are thousands more who depend on the tourist dollar. “People used to come every day and sell tomatoes, onions, and other products, even from Blantyre [235km south] but we can’t buy from them now. The knock-on effect of having no tourists in Cape Maclear is huge,” Joffe says.
by Charles Pensulo