Domestic tourism offsetting the loss of foreign visitors in Asia

China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia have seen booms in domestic tourism in recent months, as going abroad is tough or impossible due to border closures in most of Asia to counter the spread of the coronavirus

Domestic tourism offsetting the loss of foreign visitors in Asia
Tourists walk from stall to stall at a roadside market in Kenting in southern Taiwan on August 11. Photo: Ralph Jennings.

(ATF) At Taiwan’s preeminent scenic spot Sun Moon Lake, all but a few hotel rooms along the eastern shore had filled on a typical Saturday in August.

Tourists came by ferry after ferry throughout the day to look for beds with views of the mountain-rimmed reservoir that gives the locale its name. About 200 people lined up to board Sun Moon Lake’s cable car to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village amusement park. They were all residents of Taiwan.

Yet just 90 minutes away, the normally popular Ri Yue Hsin roadside bamboo craft shop was all but empty as cars whizzed up a two-lane highway just outside to outdoor spots in the mountains.

“People are afraid of enclosed spaces, so they just go outdoors.” shop owner Luo Chuan-tun owner said, recalling before 2020 that more than tour 50 buses per day would stop outside to let passengers look around. Many Taiwanese believe the coronavirus still lurks in enclosed spaces. “Our store has been impacted,” he said.

These snapshots from Taiwan paint a bigger picture from around Asia: Domestic travel is helping some tourism-related businesses backfill the near total loss of foreign arrivals. The trend is emerging in places with Covid-19 under control and with a middle-class-plus population that’s spread across enough land for long-distance trips.

Domestic travel boom

China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia have seen booms in domestic tourism over the past four months.

People are traveling at home because going abroad is tough or legally impossible. Due to border closures in most of Asia, foreign travellers can’t get in. Governments put up these barriers earlier in the year to control the spread of disease.

“I would say domestic tourism is a big mitigator of the pandemic shock for Japan, China and Taiwan, in countries where the cases have been relatively moderate,” Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit in Singapore, said. “And those countries have a relatively high standard of living.”

Arrivals in Taiwan sagged to a record low of 2,559 in April following a historic high in December of 1,143,201, government Tourism Bureau stats show.

The bureau has not done its annual domestic travel survey for 2020 but found anecdotally that the east coast and outlying islands – both known for natural scenery – drew normal headcounts during the July and August school holidays, a bureau official said. Each citizen got a NT$1,000 (US$30) travel subsidy from the government, too.

Henry Liu, 43, a Taiwanese information services employee, became part of the trend while travelling the amusement park in August with nine relatives. His family planned to spend nine days on the road and take in three landmark scenic areas. They normally visit Japan, a perennial favourite among Taiwanese. Liu didn’t mind staying in Taiwan.

“Distances are closer and consumer transactions are more transparent,” he said. “It’s our own country, so people-to-people communication goes more smoothly.”

China, Vietnam, Japan, Australia

China has seen another resurgence of domestic tourism since May, about two months after it throttled the world’s first Covid-19 outbreak and lifted lockdowns, Biswas said.

Domestic flights in China averaged more than 10,000 a day in August, almost the same level as a year earlier, media outlets in the country report. Air travel had rebounded to pre-Covid-19 levels by mid-year, Biswas said.

Chinese domestic tourism during the May 1-5 Labor Day break had totalled just half of normal levels with revenue at just 30% of 2019 levels as travellers spent “more cautiously”, Biswas said. “Nevertheless, this represented a major recovery from the zero levels of tourism recorded in February,” he said.

In Vietnam, the National Administration of Tourism found domestic travel had fallen 50% in the first half of the year compared to the same period of 2019. Vietnamese took about 85 million trips within the country last year altogether for two-thirds of Vietnam’s total tourism revenue of around $30 billion. Most stayed home in April this year because of government-ordered shutdowns.

Then, with average hotel occupancy around 20% due to lack of international arrivals, domestic air travel gradually resumed from late April through June, Biswas said.

Vietnamese airlines have dropped fares as hotels dangle discounts to attract domestic travellers. The country’s chief budget airline VietJet Air, for example, began from August offering free checked baggage up to 15 kilograms on all domestic flights.

Domestic tourism began rebounding in Japan from mid-June, when inter-prefectural travel restrictions were lifted and local governments offered subsidies, TTG Asia Media reported. Flagship carrier Japan Airlines had recovered 30% of its June 2019 passenger loads in June this year, the travel industry website said.

More than 70% of South Koreans say they are planning domestic holidays by year’s end, according to the government’s Korea Tourism Organisation.

Hitting the road

Roadside retail in Australia is also benefiting from domestic tourism as citizens drive cars from city to city over distances up to 1,000 kilometres, said Stuart Orr, professor of management at Deakin University in Australia. Overseas visitors would fly the same routes.

“Residential tourists will make extensive use of stop points between capital cities for refreshment and souvenirs, for example art,” Orr said. “By comparison, both international and domestic tourists on day or overnight trips will travel relatively short distances, up to 100 kilometres, staying in local accommodation and engaging in tourism, typically in one town.”

But as the Taiwan bamboo shop owner found, shifts in taste between domestic and inbound travel doesn’t favour everyone on the tourism map.

Domestic travel in Australia reached just 20% of normal tourist numbers for the first six months of 2020.

But they spend less

Local tourists in Vietnam are “more restrictive on excess spending” compared to foreign counterparts and show less interest in cultural attractions, said Hylton Lipkin, general manager of the Alba Wellness Valley by Fusion resort in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. “International guests tend to have the attitude ‘We are here, let’s do it or buy it,’” Lipkin said.

International travellers outspend domestic peers almost everywhere in Asia, Biswas said. Local travellers drive rather than fly, for example, because they own cars. They’re more likely to lodge with family and less likely to go on shopping sprees. Food, hotels and transport surrounding conventions depend largely on foreign visitors but don’t have any. 

Some would-be local tourists still fear going out in case Covid-19 resurfaces as it did the Vietnamese resort city Danang in July. On September 2, which was National Day in Vietnam, the Dong Mien Bus Station in Ho Chi Minh City served just 16,000 passengers, 72% down from last year, news website VnExpress International reported.

Domestic travel during Covid-19 had already fallen about 20% before the Danang outbreak, Ralf Matthaes, founder of the Infocus Mekong Research consultancy in Ho Chi Minh City, estimated.

“Domestic tourism is down even though there are great deals out there,” Matthaes said. “Vietnamese are being cautious.”

By Ralph Jennings in Yuchi Township, Taiwan