The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Rekindle your love of Asia
From Nepal and Mongolia to Bali and Japan, this is a continent of endless inspiration, says Michelle Jana Chan
Asia is back in the game. Flight and ferry services are being restored; airports are buzzing again; and taxi ranks are jostling to keep up. The continent is very much on the move once more, looking out instead of looking in.
Curiously, of all the regions of the world, it is Asia – the whizz-bang, fast-forward, future-facing continent – that has been slowest to get going since the pandemic. But now, with the exception of China and Hong Kong, almost the whole of Asia is fully open to inbound travellers, without the need for tests or masks, and India has finally reinstated its e-visa option for British travellers.
All things considered, this is the ideal moment to take that big splashy trip to one or more of the unique countries that make up this diverse, spectacular chunk of the globe – not least because tourist arrivals are not yet back to their usual levels, and travel experiences may be all the richer for it.
For example, until the pandemic struck, more than 2.5million tourists per year were visiting the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor, in Cambodia, and the most popular temples had become overcrowded, even unpleasant, as a result. Last year, that number fell by 90 per cent – which makes for a much more tranquil and intimate experience, wandering sometimes entirely alone among those stone towers and cruciform terraces.
Yet the situation also feels bittersweet, as I listen to locals who are struggling to make ends meet. For the past year or so, I have been zigzagging the continent and witnessing the effects of the pandemic on the tourism industry. I have met tour guides in Thimphu, Bhutan, who have switched to farming rice; chefs in Hoi An who have closed down three or four restaurants and laid off 100 staff; and walked the main street in Koh Samui, so neglected it looks like it has been hit by a typhoon.
Another bruised destination, Bali, usually welcomes six million overseas tourists a year, but in 2021 that number plummeted to just 50. When I visited a few months ago, traffic was light and beaches were empty.
Bali will bounce back, of course, and the signs are promising: recently, tourism growth has been averaging more than 40 per cent per month. Nevertheless, it will not be an instant recovery – and travellers choosing Asia for their next trip may still get to see the region in an alluring, almost sepiatinted light, evocative of halcyon times gone by.