As we near 100 days since lockdown began I can’t help but wonder what impact the lack of tourism is having across the touristic hotspots around the world and their communities. What are the families that rely on the income from tourists doing? What do the sights look like without hoards of people? Is there any benefit?
Last month I touched base with contacts from Vietnam and Romania to find out what the situation was like on the ground with them. This month, I’ve been finding out what is going on in Cambodia and Brazil. Just how well are they fairing?
We went to Brazil for our honeymoon and had the most epic 3 weeks exploring the country. Brazil had so much to offer, from the idyllic island of Ilha Grande and the staggering waterfalls of Iguaçu; to the picturesque town of Paraty and the party capital of Rio de Janiero. We loved every minute of it, but one of our most memorable experiences was our Food Tour with Eat Rio Tours. Not only did we try some delicious food (and some weird stuff too!), but we had the most amazing time with our tour guide Tom.
I decided to reach out to him to see how he is doing during the current crisis.
What is the COVID-19 situation like where you are?
“Sadly, Brazil has been hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. President Bolsonaro (a far-right, anti-establishment politician who supports a return to dictatorship) has consistently down-played the seriousness of the situation, referring to Covid-19 as gripezinho (like a little flu) and from the very start he has been pushing against all social isolation measures. Thankfully, the governors of all of Brazil’s states have been ignoring him and putting in place their own isolation measures, but the feeling is that things will get a lot worse before they get better.”
How is it affecting the people of Rio?
“Brazilians in general are not a good fit for social isolation – this is a culture where people constantly touch each other during conversations; hugging is obligatory and people aren’t always great at following official guidelines. Social isolation is seen by many as a luxury for those who can afford it. Working from home when you’re a construction labourer or street vendor isn’t going to happen. And as one person remarked in a recent interview, “we work in the morning so we can eat in the afternoon” – most people don’t have any savings to live off while they wait for this to blow over.
Somewhere between 20 and 25% of the population of Rio live in favelas – overcrowded slums where social isolation is effectively impossible. Many people do not have reliable access to running water which also makes hand-hygiene difficult to maintain.”
COVID-19 was likely introduced into the country by affluent businessmen and rich holiday makers. However, the brunt of the strain is being felt within the poorest communities of the city. Not only do these communities lack the infrastructure to cope with the outbkreak, as Tom mentioned above, they also can’t afford to stay at home. Do they take the chances with the virus and try and earn a living, or do they stay in and slowly starve? It is a very tough decision that thankfully we do not have to make in the UK where we are being well looked after.
Bolsonaro has been playing on the poorest communities need for income by actively discouraging confinement in a ploy to ingratiate himself with them. According to one news article, the gangs within the Cidade de Deus (City of God) imposed a curfew on its residents to limit the spread of the disease, whilst the gangs of Santa Marta, the favela that sits in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, have been handing out soap and encouraging visitors to wash their hands in the fountain at the entrance to the neighbourhood. At least the drug deals will be done under strict hygiene measures!
Are there any good deed stories emerging throughout this crisis?
“Absolutely”- says Tom – “I am now a member of a WhatsApp group of around 40 people who are working together with the community leaders of the local favelas in order to raise funds to purchase and distribute cestas básicas (‘basic baskets’ – a collection of essential food supplies and sanitary products) to the most needy in the poorest communities around my part of Rio (Santa Teresa). Similar projects have been springing up all over Brazil.”
The project Tom is involved in is run by his friend Bindu Mathur, who runs the Casa Beleza guesthouse in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. Whereas they would normally be busy with guests at this time of year, they are instead busy supporting those in the most need during these tough times; the families that are now unable to work and who do not have any savings to be able to support themselves during these troubling times.
What is the outlook for your business and what can readers do to help?
“This is a tough one. I’m sorry to say that my business has come to a complete standstill and there’s a strong chance it won’t ever return. Pretty heart-breaking after building up the business over 8 years of hard work, sweating it out on the streets, taking thousands of guests on food tours and creating a small, but really successful, tourism agency. I picked pretty much the worst possible combination of industries. People working in bars and restaurants are struggling, people working with travel and tourism are struggling – but my business was a combination of both – whoops!
But to strike a positive note, when one door closes, another one opens. I’m using my spare time to work on a series of cooking videos: (#EatRioCooking) in the hope that that could lead on to something fun and food-related. Readers could definitely help by checking out my videos on YouTube and Instagram TV (please share/subscribe!).”
You can also support Tom and Bindu by donating to their fundraiser. Even a small contribution can go a long way in providing supplies to the families most in need. The money is being used to buy food, cleaning products, gas fuel for cooking, nappies and prescription medication. Even if you just donate your morning Costa, your help will make a massive difference.
Meanwhile in Cambodia the lack of tourism is having a profound impact on the economy. Over 32% of Cambodia’s GDP comes from tourism, which came to an abrupt halt as the pandemic took hold in other parts of the world. Cambodia has had few recorded cases of COVID-19 and although some may question the data, the country is not witnessing mass illness or deaths. Have they been spared despite flights from Wuhan not being halted until late February? Or has the much younger population (50% are under the age of 25 thanks to the Khmer Rouge) meant that the effects of it have not been as harshly felt?
I reached out to Darren Wilch, from Cambodia Images, to find out what it was really like on the ground. We met Darren last year when we went on a photography tour of Angkor Wat. Just like Tom, we had a great time with Darren, and what started off as a simple tutorial of how to take a photograph, turned into a very enjoyable day of dry British humour. Just like food tours have now become a certainty everywhere we go, after our time with Darren so have photography tours!
Siem Reap – just a small village
Speaking to Darren it seems Siem Reap would be almost unrecognisable to the town we were in this time last year. Siem Reap is the gateway to Angkor Wat and thus a bustling tourism hub which I remember for its bright lights, loud bars, and sea of tuk tuks. It has now shrunk back to village proportions. Areas such as the bright, loud and crowded Pub Street now lie empty, and the majority of tourist restaurants throughout the town have closed. There is not a tuk tuk to be found.
Angkor Wat is almost deserted giving locals the opportunity to truly enjoy its grandeur without the queues that would normally be associated with it. However, for the many families reliant on the crowds, times are tough. Not only do they have no income, but many have outstanding loans too which is further compounding the problem. Many have chosen to return to their homeland villages where at least they have farmland.
Having said that, things are looking up for Cambodia. The ban on visitors from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Iran and USA has now been lifted. These changes are not aimed at tourists. As well as needing a certificate of health, travellers will need proof of insurance up to $50,000 and will be required to quarantine for 14 days according to the Bangkok Post. The question most want answered though, is, how long before tourists can return? Many Khmer businesses are opening back up to try and earn a living, however, the punters are simply not there. If you have always wanted to visit Angkor Wat though, now is the time, whilst it is still quiet!
The Together Project
As far as Darren goes, life continues as normal, but without any photography workshops. He is, however, working on his time lapse portfolio which you can check out here. I also suggest you follow him on Instagram where you will be able to see some truly fantastic images of Angkor Wat and the surrounding area.
He did point me in the direction of “The Together Project” which is headed up by his friend Bill Morse from the Landmine Museum and Scott from the Two Dragons guesthouse. With thousands having lost their jobs in Siem Reap alone, there is no money, and therefore no food. Even before the pandemic 2.66 million people in Cambodia were living on less than $1.20 a day. That problem is now worse.
The Together Project has been handing out 1,000 relief packages to those most in need since April, and aim to continue doing so for the next 4 months. The parcels include rice, noodles, sauces, salt and sugar. If you want to support the project you can donate here. Again, donating the cost of your Costa Coffee can make a significant difference to the families of Siem Reap who truly need a helping hand right now. No act of kindness is too small, it always has a ripple effect.
Be grateful for what you have
Chatting to Darren and Tom reminds me just how much I have to be grateful for right now. Although they both seem to be in good spirits, it is clear that the communities they live in are being significantly affected as a result of the economic impact that the pandemic is having, something, that is yet to be felt in the UK. Imagine how much harder it would be without the support of the government who is magicking money to ensure we can continue living the life we have become accustomed to. As I finish off this blog I can’t help but think of this quote:
“Someone else is dreaming about the things you take for granted”