Thailand desperately awaits the return of tourists
When Sunisa (name changed) learned that the Thai government had enlightened plans to reopen Phuket, the country’s most popular resort island, as part of the pilot project to revive tourism, she was elated. Like many, the pandemic has derailed his ability to make a living. Prior to the coronavirus, she was typically busy running a private tour operator for families and small groups, offering one-stop service from accommodation to transportation and excursions.
“I thought the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ program would help bring back visitors and it was as I expected,” said the 50-year-old. DW. “Some clients came back and my income started to improve.” While the number is nothing compared to what she was doing before, Sunisa is optimistic about the next peak season from December to March as new bookings have started to arrive.
“Unpredictable and complicated”
As of July 1, foreign tourists can visit the resort island without having to self-quarantine, provided they are fully vaccinated and are prepared to obey a long list of regulations in place to revive in safely an industry that desperately needs to be saved.
After staying in the area for 14 days, they are allowed to travel to other parts of Thailand. But visitors were put off by the Thai government’s unpredictability of COVID regulations and complicated red tape. Just over 26,000 travelers visited Phuket through the Sandbox program in the first two months, well below the 100,000 we had hoped to have visited by the end of September.
Although the numbers are lower than expected, officials still hope the net of visitors can turn into a flow.
Save the tourism industry
Like other tourism-dependent countries, Thailand’s tourism sector, which accounted for 20% of national income, has been hit by the coronavirus. As much of the world struggled to contain the first waves of the pandemic, Thailand survived relatively unscathed last year, albeit only by closing its borders and, in turn, its tourism industry.
But the Delta variant has seen infections, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocket since April, postponing any plans to fully reopen. In early September, authorities relaxed local closures, including in the capital Bangkok, which were in place to contain outbreaks to boost business, despite infection rates remaining high.
The move signals a tactical shift on the part of authorities who now hope to keep contagion at manageable levels and attempt to return to normal.
Thus, despite the alarming number of coronavirus cases, Thailand is continuing its plan to extend its “Sandbox” initiative to more provinces, including the capital Bangkok, the city of Chiangmai, in the north of the country, and seaside resorts such as Pattaya, Cha-An and Hua Hin.
Struggling to stay afloat
Hotels large and small across the country are one of the industries hardest hit by COVID-19 and have seen their business evaporate due to the lack of visitors. A recent survey by the Bank of Thailand and the Thai Hotels Association (THA) found that 52% of hoteliers were considering temporarily closing their doors while 9% wanted to close permanently.
Small players in particular feel the pressure. Normally, Sawita Vibhatasilpin and her business partner would see 20-30 backpackers walk in and out of their small but bustling downtown Bangkok hostel every day.
But since authorities closed the borders last year to contain the coronavirus, there is now plenty of space in the hostel as the number has dropped significantly to 1-2 travelers per month. Small, independent, low-budget hostels like his are struggling to survive the COVID-19 outbreak. Two other hostels in the same neighborhood have already closed and Sawita fears a similar fate will befall them.
“I’m afraid we will eventually be forced to close. Although the owner has been understanding, we have barely made any money and have not paid any rent for the past six months,” said the 30-something.
Waiting for better days
Although the situation has improved slightly for some, there is still a long way to go before tourist arrivals in Thailand make a full recovery. “I didn’t have any reservations until the last 4-5 months, when some domestic tourists started to come back,” Nattakit Malaichaisong said. DW.
“But I really doubt we can actually reopen in October. Less than 20% are fully vaccinated and the number of daily cases is still high.” A tour guide in Chiangmai, one of the most popular destinations in the country, Nattakit used to pick up tourists as early as 5am for excursions and hardly had time to rest but these days- Here, he spends most of his time at home, raising his two-year-old with his wife.
“Before the pandemic hit the demand for my services was so high that I worked nonstop for three months because it was peak season,” said the 39-year-old. Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn told local media last month that if the outbreak caused by the delta continues beyond September, the country can expect only 500,000-700,000 foreign visitors this year. .
The Tourism Authority of Thailand was more optimistic, predicting that 1.2 million international tourists would visit the country this year.
But even this more optimistic outlook is pale compared to the 40 million international travelers who visited the country in 2019 before COVID. “I think we may have to wait another year or two until travel really picks up,” Nattakit said. “Restoring visitor confidence and ensuring the safety of tourists is essential.”