BANGKOK -- Asian nations have profited handsomely from the impressive growth in tourists from China over the past decade, but the specter of a rapidly spreading virus has raised concerns over industry prospects.
Some 150 million Chinese tourists traveled abroad in 2018, a stunning leap from China's 10.5 million international travelers in 2000.
Tourism is a major source of national revenue for many countries, and Chinese visitors now generally top the charts in terms of numbers and spending.
A measure of how touchy senior officials have become about the situation was seen Friday in the Thai capital Bangkok, where Public Health Minister Anutin Chanvirakul was overseeing the handout of face masks at a busy station on the sky train elevated transit system.
Anutin, waving some masks in his right hand, complained that no one should refuse them because they help stop transmission of the virus.
“And the damn foreigners, damn tourists," he told reporters. "They should be kicked out of the country. Chinese and Asians, they all accept these masks. These damn Europeans ... How do we know that they are not spreading the disease? They could have been visited other cities before coming to Thailand. This is something that all Thais have to help with. If we see people like this, we should kick them out of the country.”
He later said on his Facebook page that he had become upset because of the attitude of some foreigners, who acted disrespectfully toward him and his colleagues.
A downturn will hit many people hard.
Some observers, like Prof. Lisa Wan of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School, are fairly confident the tourism industry will bounce back soon.
Using the SARS epidemic as a reference point, she noted an initial sharp decline in China's GDP growth was largely offset by higher growth in the following two quarters, resulting in about 10% annual growth.
"Since China is the world's largest outbound travel market, the global tourism industry is likely to recover soon after the outbreak," she said.
The tourism industry in Thailand accounted for 15.5% of total employment — 5,834,000 jobs — in 2017, according to a report issued last year by Bangkok Bank.
Lately, the lines to get into Bangkok's Grand Palace, a top-tier tourist attraction, have been sparse.
“The day that we heard the news (about the virus), the tourists were gone,” said Arisara Chamsue, who runs a nearby shop. "The number has dropped. And I can only make a tenth or two tenths of what I normally make."
She said this situation reminded her of the 2003 outbreak of SARS, a another coronavirus from China that wreaked similar havoc.
Thailand, a long established tourist market, is in the top rank for Chinese visitors, who comprised 11 million, or 27%, of the total 40 million tourists to visit the country last year.
"It is understandable why the tourism industry is in a panic from the sudden tremendous impact," Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan told The Associated Press.
As a regional tourism powerhouse, Thailand has seen its way through many crises. SARS, bird flu, bombs and the 2018 sinking of a yacht off the southern resort island of Phuket that killed 47 Chinese tourists -- they turned out to be blips in a long upward curve.
Still, the government estimates that from the end of January until June, Thailand will lose 300 billion baht ($9.7 billion) in tourism income from Chinese travelers, Pipat said.
The problem is acute in Phuket, one of the country's top tourist destinations.
"The tourism industry is the only source of income for Phuket province," said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the president of the Phuket Tourism Association, adding that tourism to Phuket alone contributes 400 billion baht ($12.9 billion) annually to the Thai economy. "Therefore, when there is a problem, it will affect all kinds of business such as airlines, hotels, restaurants, etc."
Things are also a bit slow on Bangkok's famous backpacker street, Khao San Road.
Laksinat Prommawan, a masseuse, said Monday she normally would have had a few customers already by noon, but only one had turned up all morning.
Japan held the runner-up position to Thailand last year in hosting Chinese travelers, with 9.6 million making up about a third of foreign arrivals.
Since the beginning of February, Japan has banned the entry of Chinese from Hubei, the province of which Wuhan is the capital. The data showing any effects will become available only later this month.
"It's not like there are no Chinese at all," Tomotsugu Mizukami, spokesman for the Kyoto City Tourism Association, said Monday in a telephone interview. "But the effect is clearly visible."
Last year, about 6 million Chinese visited South Korea, making China its biggest source of foreign tourists, according to the state-run Korea Tourism Organization.
In recent days, major shopping districts and other spots in the capital Seoul popular with Chinese tourists were relatively quiet.
Cosmetic shops, clothing stores and restaurants in those areas complained of sharply declining sales, as many South Koreans are also avoiding crowds and staying at home.
Sales at the Lotte department store in Seoul's bustling Myeongdong neighborhood on Feb. 1-2, the first weekend after the national Lunar New Year holidays, dropped by 30% compared to the same weekend last year, according to store officials.
The smaller but growing number of Chinese visitors to Australia — 1.43 million in 2018, the most of any nationality — contributed up to 20 billion Australian dollars ($13.4 billion) to the nation's tourist industry.
The halt to group tours from China will cost the Australian tourism industry at least AUD $1 billion ($671 million) over two months, investment bank UBS Australia warned last week.
“However, if travel disruptions are extended, or expand to cover independent travelers, the cost could be much greater,” it added.
Australia has a large niche market of foreign visitors: international education is Australia's third biggest export and China is Australia's largest source of foreign students, with 200,000 attending Australian universities.
"We've had a soft economy, the drought, the bushfires and now this virus. It's bad news on top of bad news," PricewaterhouseCoopers Australia chief economist Jeremy Thorpe told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
Research by the company estimates the loss of Chinese tourists and students could cost 20,000 Australian jobs.
Tourism accounts for about 10% of New Zealand's economy and is the country's largest earner of export dollars. Just over 400,000 tourists from China visit each year, second only to the number who come from Australia.
New Zealand this week temporarily closed its borders to foreigners traveling from China.
"It's still too early to know what the long-term economic impact of the coronavirus could be, and it may be some time before we know the full extent," Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis told AP. "The government is taking this very seriously, and we are closely monitoring the situation."
Associated Press writers Preeyapa T. Khunsong and Tassanee Vejpongsa in Bangkok, Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand contributed to this report.