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Reshaping global tourism amid pandemic

People attend as more than 400 hot air-balloons take off from the Chambley-Bussieres airbase, eastern France   -  
Copyright © africanews

World Tourism Organization - (UNWTO)

Coronavirus cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus’ birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season.

Missing were the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town.

Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops wre all closed.

The renowned Christmas tree lighting service was limited to a small group of authorized people, as well as church services on Christmas Eve.

For a town that relies so heavily on tourism, it was a disaster - but it's far from unique.

The world over, tourism businesses are suffering due to the pandemic.

Tourists had started to return to Luxor on the banks of the Nile to wonder at the grandeur and beauty of Egypt's ancient tombs.

Following the revolution in 2011, the tourist industry struggled, but slowly visitor numbers began to climb again after direct flights were reinstated and restrictions on travel lifted.

But COVID-19 cast a shadow over that recovery.

In Japan, border closures meant that once crowded tourists spots were eerily quiet.

The country escaped the worst of the virus in terms of deaths, but its economy certainly felt the impact.

It was due to host the Olympics over the summer, but that has been postponed.

Japan hopes the games will go ahead in 2021, but what form they will take and whether overseas travellers will be allowed to attend remains to be seen.

In Israel, two lockdowns over the year took their toll on tourist businesses.

The Red Sea resort city of Eilat was one of the hardest hit.

The southern Israeli city hosted two and a half million tourists in 2019, and before the COVID-19 outbreak hit had an unemployment rate of just three percent.

Some 80 percent of the people living here depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak hit, Eilat's unemployment rate stood at just three percent.

In October, the mayor reported a massive rise to 75 percent unemployment.

"It's like a ghost town, there's nothing. I can tell you with my own experience that I'm not taking any money at home," said taxi driver Yigal Zohar.

Kyrgyzstan's emerging tourism industry was hit hard.

It had 7 million visitors in 2018 and 8.5 million in 2019. According to the data of the World Travel Tourism Council, in 2019 tourism accounted for 8 percent of total economic activity and 8.5 of total employment.

But the pandemic destroyed hopes for the 2020 season.

Hoteliers offered discounts of up to 50 percent on normal prices, but resorts remained almost empty.

According to tourism officials, 40 percent of hotels in the region did not open.

Some companies came up up with innovative alternatives for travel-starved customers.

A Taiwanese airline launched so-called "flights to nowhere".

StarLux's flight JX-8227 took passengers on a sightseeing trip over Taiwan and a Japanese island, before landing at the same airport from where they departed.

And in Singapore, travel fans got a chance to relive the inflight experience, by dining and watching movies on a grounded plane.

The Restaurant A380 @ Changi, from Singapore Airlines, was a sell-out success with people keen to get a pre-COVID flying feel.

"It allows us a chance to engage with our customers at a time where there is very little flying. But we do hope the flying comes back, sooner rather than later," said Lee Lik Hsin, SIA executive vice-president (commercial).

Italy was the first country in Europe to be hit by the coronavirus with most of the cases among the elderly.

In Venice, the city's 77th International Film Festival went ahead.

It was a welcome boost for tourism after a desolate summer.

Face masks were required indoors and out. Reservations for all were required in advance, with theatre capacity set at less than half. The public was barred from the red carpet and paparazzi, who would normally chase after stars in rented boats, were given socially distanced positions on land.

In southern Italy, a village offered visitors free accommodation to get itself known on the tourist trail.

The scheme in San Giovanni in Galdo in the Molise region proved so popular that the home stays were booked up for the entire season.

However, with the second wave of the virus, Italy then introduced more restrictions to try to curb its spread.

In Rwanda, a tech entrepreneur created online virtual reality tours to tempt visitors back to the country.

Patrick Karangwa launched his company, Kigali 360, in 2018.

Last year, tourism brought more than $490 million in revenues to Rwanda, according to the Rwanda Development Board.

But border closures this year meant dwindling numbers.

So Karangwa's VR experiences of Rwanda's best sites were a way to get overseas visitors interested in the country when travel is possible again.

The government injected $50 million into tech-driven tourism initiatives to help with post-COVID recovery.

"It is unfortunate that the pandemic hit the industry in general, but for me as a virtual tour content creator it was actual an opportunity," says Karangwa.

The tourism sector normally accounts for almost a tenth of the European Union's economic output.

Millions of jobs are at risk, particularly in countries whose economy is propped up by tourism, such as Greece, France, Spain and Italy.

The effects were also palpable in Belgium where in 2016 the terrorist attacks damaged the tourism sector.

Brussels' Grand Place was not the bustling piazza it normally is, full of tourists.

So with no firm answer on when foreign travellers would return, many countries turned their focus to 'staycations'.

In Russia, holidaymakers flocked to rural rivers to enjoy a summer break.

This natural landscape of the Nizhny Novgorod region is became an increasingly popular vacation destination for domestic tourists.

This river site is around 100 kilometres from Moscow - far enough to feel like a real escape from city life, but close enough to travel here by bus.

Travel agencies said bookings increased threefold in 2020, and kayaks and tents were fully booked.

Also in the great outdoors, Americans eager to hit the road during the coronavirus pandemic fuelled a boom in RV sales and travel.

Sales of recreational vehicles surged, along with bookings at RV campgrounds, as vacationers sought ways to travel safely and explore nature.

Nohr's RV Center in California reported that sales roughly doubled, with many first-time buyers driving the surge.

"So you could take an RV, go away with your family and stay out in a campground or in the woods and be by yourself. And so now the RV industry is on fire," said Mike Nohr, Nohr's RV Center.

For a small number of places, the pandemic boosted business.

Neum in Bosnia reaped the rewards of more popular resorts closing amid the pandemic, as visitors looked for an alternative holiday destination on the Adriatic.

It reported record breaking numbers of tourists over the summer.

All of the 30,000 beds in the town's hotels and visitors accommodation were fully booked until the end of August.

But Bosnian tourism suffered enormous decline with classic destinations such as Sarajevo, Mostar and the Catholic shrine of Medjugorje all reporting an 80 percent drop in visits.

Tourism is the fifth most important industry in the country, with an estimated 60,000 people making a living from it.

An uninhabited island rich in biodiversity offered Ukrainians a welcome rest in nature, away from the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dzharylhach Island - a national park stretching 56 square km, is home to 200 sika deer and 170 fallow deer, world sheep, foxes and wild boar.

In the sea, three types of dolphin can be seen from the shore, the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin, the short-beaked common dolphin and "Azovka", subspecies of harbor porpoise.

Tourists are allowed to pitch tents in a 45 hectare area near the lighthouse or further up on the shore.

A further 5,000 hectares are kept totally human free.

"Our soul relaxes here. It's almost impossible to find such an island in Ukraine, unfortunately. But here is freedom," said Anatoliy Skachkov, a tourist from Kyiv.

In July, Uganda began slowly reopening its tourist sector for both domestic and foreign visitors after a six month shut down due to coronavirus.

Tourism had been rising steadily in Uganda over the last few years until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the financial year 2018/2019, the tourism sector, the biggest foreign earner for the country, contributed over $1.4 billion, 7.7 percent of the country's GDP, according to the Ugandan Tourism Board.

When coronavirus broke out and travel restrictions were imposed around the world, tourists and other visitors could not get into the country.

The restrictions led to a revenue slump in the tourism sector, and hundreds lost their jobs in an industry that employs nearly 700,000 Ugandans.

According to the Ugandan Tourism Board, the country recorded a total of 1.4 million foreign visitors in 2019, but from March to June 2020, the number dropped to zero.

Hong Kong's Disneyland reopened for the second time in September as the semi-autonomous Chinese city again appeared to have brought new coronavirus cases down to near zero.

The park initially reopened in 18 June after being closed from the end of January, but was closed again in mid-July because of an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Visitors were required to wear masks at all times inside the park, except when eating and drinking, and had their temperature checked upon arrival.

Social distancing measures in queues, on rides, at shops and restaurants were the norm.

Cleansing and sanitization was increased.

Hong Kong's economy is heavily dependent on tourism and services and the government moved steadily to bring back business without sparking new outbreaks in the densely populated city of 7.5 million.

For those who could travel, a Taiwanese hotel made a unique destination.

The Cozzi Blu luxury hotel joined forces with the aquarium next door to provide a marine experience for guests.

Visitors can watch penguins swim through tunnels in the cafe, see sealife in the aquarium, before retiring to the nautically themed hotel next door.