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Countries Balance Needed Tourism With Coronavirus Concerns


There is a debate about how fast things can or should return to normal here in the United States, but little discussion of when the country should reopen to international visitors. This is a crucial question, though, for leaders of countries that are far more dependent on the tourist industry. They have to balance desperately needed income and employment against the potential risk to their citizens of infection from the outside.

We're getting different views of this dilemma from some of our regular reporters on three different continents. Joanna Kakissis is in Athens. NPR's Eyder Peralta is in Nairobi. Michael Sullivan is in Thailand. They're all with us. Hi, everybody.




GREENE: Well, Joanna, let me start with you. I mean, you're in Greece. This is a country that has gotten some pretty good marks for how they've handled this pandemic. The death toll has been, you know, thankfully, very low. But tourism is, like, 20% of GDP in Greece. So what are the Greeks going to do here?

KAKISSIS: Well, you know, Greece absolutely needs tourism revenue right now. Something like 700,000 jobs are indirectly or directly dependent on tourism. And Greece just recovered from this long economic depression. Now the fallout from the pandemic is expected to shrink the economy by up to 13% this year. So Greece wants to bring in as many tourists as possible to counter that. On June 15, it led in tourists from the European Union. Unfortunately, not many of them have shown up.

So on July 1, Greece hopes to open itself up to tourists from the rest of the world. But it's not clear which countries will be approved by the European Union. Greece is working with other EU member states on the list of which tourists can enter. Making the cut depends entirely on how well these countries are managing the pandemic. And at the moment, the list includes Australia, China, Uganda, but not the United States. The U.S. is considered too risky right now because the infection rate is so high.

GREENE: Well, Eyder, some African countries I know are almost as dependent on the tourism industry as Greece is. But it sounds like they're doing things differently.

PERALTA: Yeah, because everything is still at a standstill here in Africa. The borders of around 40 countries are still totally shut down. So very few tourists are flying in for safaris. I mean, even us - right? - like, we would love to be at the beach right now. But that is impossible because we're not allowed to leave Nairobi. And we are getting to what is usually peak tourism season here. It's the great wildebeest migration is around the corner. But, right now, it doesn't look like very many people will be here to see it.

GREENE: Michael is any of this sounding familiar to you as you've been watching things play out in Thailand?

SULLIVAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, Thailand, like Greece, depends on tourism for as much as 20% of its GDP. That's gone with international travel closed since March. And the lockdown hit Thailand's manufacturing sector, too. So altogether, it's put millions out of work - at least temporarily. Manufacturing is starting up again now that the lockdown has been lifted. But tourism isn't coming back for a while. And, of course, it won't look the same when it does.

The first people that are going to be allowed back here will be foreign businesspeople and foreigners with family here and people coming for medical tourism. They're going to be allowed next week after July 1. But most will still have to be quarantined for 14 days. As for tourists, Asian countries with low infection rates, they're going to be the first allowed back as the region pursues these travel bubbles you've been hearing about, safe country-to-country travel. But even that probably won't happen for another month or so, not until August or September.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about, I mean, more about the pressure that these countries are under to keep citizens safe. Eyder, African countries, I mean, you know, need the money. They need the employment from tourism. But is that just outweighed by the fear of more infection coming from overseas?

PERALTA: I mean, that's what the governments are discussing right now, right? I mean, at the moment, most African countries have actually been very successful at keeping infection rates down. But the thing is that the health care systems here are so weak in many countries that even a tiny spike in infections could overwhelm them. I mean, here in Kenya, for example, hospitals are already reaching capacity. And we just crossed the 5,000-case mark - not very many, relatively.

So opening up the borders would absolutely help economically. But, you know, it could also tip the country into a huge health crisis. And the president here says that opening up would just be irresponsible.

GREENE: Joanna, I mean, you said that the Greek government is hoping to bring as many tourists in as they can to help the economy. What are the fears, though, of more coronavirus?

KAKISSIS: You know, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis says, you know, he wants to - he wants people to consider Greece the safest destination in the world. So he's trying to point out that he's taking the steps to keep tourists safe. But, you know, he's taking those same - the government is taking those same precautions to also keep the Greeks safe, too, because, like other countries that don't have a whole lot of money, the health care system here can't stand - can't withstand a huge outbreak.

As far as the tourists go, what - the way the prime minister is trying to lure people here is saying, look; you know, the people in the hospitality industry have to wear masks. The government, you know, we're going to have health workers on standby in case of outbreaks. And he tried to emphasize that these measures won't ruin anybody's vacation. He was on the island of Santorini earlier this month. And he pointed to this gorgeous sunset on the sea and said this.


PRIME MINISTER KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS: You can sit on a veranda with this wonderful view, you know, have your nice Assyrtiko wine, enjoy the beach. But we don't want you crowded in a beach bar.

KAKISSIS: And that's because social distancing will be enforced.

GREENE: I mean, that is such a thing that we're going to be hearing so much of. Go on vacation. Do your thing. But, like, don't crowd into a bar. And it's going to be so dependent of whether people actually listen to that.

KAKISSIS: That's right.

GREENE: Michael, what - any timeframe at all in Thailand for when the country could open up to visitors from Europe, from here in the United States?

SULLIVAN: Don't hold your breath, David. A senior tourism authority official that I spoke to last week said maybe October or November at the earliest, probably not until next year. As I mentioned earlier, it'll be Asian tourists welcomed back first until the Thais are satisfied that the U.S. and European countries have the problem sorted. And who knows when that will be. Their attitude now is, better safe than sorry.

They've had no domestic infections for more than a month now, only 30 - well, fewer than 3,200 total with only 58 deaths. And they want to keep it that way. And Vietnam, which has done even better than Thailand in containing the spread of the virus, it's wary of foreigners, too. And it's allowing some businesspeople to come back this week. But the prime minister said yesterday that Vietnam is in no hurry to allow foreign tourists back.

GREENE: Eyder, can I just come back to you? You mentioned safaris. I mean, so much of a part of the experience visiting different parts of Africa. I mean, not having that, that's going to keep people unemployed. But doesn't that also damage conservation efforts that depend on those dollars?

PERALTA: Yeah. I was talking to Kaddu Sebunya, who's the CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation. And he says this pandemic has shown that conservation depends too much on tourism. He says we're starting to see encroachment into protection areas because people have lost their jobs. And now they're looking to the land to make a living. So he thinks, he worries, that this - that conservation efforts could be erased by this economic crisis.

GREENE: Eyder Peralta in Nairobi. Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Michael Sullivan in Thailand. Thank you all so, so much for this.

PERALTA: Thanks, David.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, David.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, David.


Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.