Thant Zin Tun, a hotel owner with properties across Myanmar managed by international brands, began to cater to the new guests, hiring Chinese speakers and expanding menu options. The first offerings of the day needed adapting, for example, because Chinese tourists “don’t really fancy the European, Western breakfast,” he said he had learned. But since the COVID-19 outbreak, he said he had seen an 85 percent drop in business at his hotels in Mandalay and Bagan, an area covered with ancient temples, both places where Chinese tourists have flocked to in recent years.
And at Yangon’s Bogyoke Market on a recent Saturday, tourists, particularly those from China, were largely missing. Saleswomen with no customers to entertain chatted among themselves and tapped on their phones behind glass cases displaying bracelets, pendants, and jade ornaments in shades varying from milky white to deep emerald. Sitting under one of the market’s covered walkways, Zin Min Tun, who has run half a dozen pearl and gem shops since 1996, estimated that the number of Chinese tourists over the previous month had dropped roughly 70 percent compared with last year. His fingers wrapped in thick ruby and agate rings, Zin Min Tun said Chinese tourists were the biggest buyers of jade, mined in Myanmar’s north, and the country’s pearls, which have a champagne-colored sheen. “The whole world depends on China,” he said. “Now they have money; they can spend around the world, not just Myanmar.”
The concerns Thant Zin Tun and other spoke of were reflected by analysts at Fitch Solutions, who last week said they were lowering their forecast for Myanmar’s GDP growth, noting that tourism would be “subdued over the coming months due to lower Chinese visitors from China’s ban on travel agent bookings, and also risk aversion from tourists of other nationalities due to Myanmar’s weak patient tracking capability.” (Upon my flight’s arrival into Yangon airport, workers in hazmat suits armed with thermometers entered the plane and took our temperatures.)
While Thant Zin Tun bemoaned the lost business, May Myat Mon Win, the tourism federation vice chair, was quick to remind me that Myanmar was hardly the only country feeling the downturn and that others were even more reliant on Chinese visitors. “China is a giant, the dragon,” she told me. “If the dragon is hit harder than this, I think there is going to be more consequences for the global economy and, of course, tourism.”
Read: The new coronavirus is a truly modern epidemic
One such area is Macau, the former Portuguese colony, which welcomed nearly 28 million visitors from mainland China last year, about 70 percent of all arrivals. (Macau is now a special administrative region that is part of China but, like Hong Kong, has a separate legal system, judiciary, and immigration regime.) Though Macau’s economy is almost wholly dependent on gaming, after a string of confirmed COVID-19 cases, the government forced all 41 casinos to halt operations for a 15-day period starting on February 5. Numerous hotels have temporarily shuttered as a result, and residents are largely abiding by the government’s recommendation to stay home. The gondolas used to ferry tourists through the artificial canals at the Venetian Hotel sat empty on the mouthwash-blue water, opera music echoing off the faux-Italian-building fronts. One security guard standing in front of a stopped escalator at the Parisian Hotel said that without any visitors, things had gotten “very boring.” A sales attendant in a luxury boutique busied himself by styling a mannequin, removing and replacing a pair of sunglasses and tweaking a bucket hat before settling on a final look, then starting again.