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Thailand

Covid's grip squeezes life out of Thai tourism

Devastated by the pandemic's impact, the tourism and service sectors could take many years to recover

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: July 02, 2020 04:06 AM GMT
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Covid's grip squeezes life out of Thai tourism

Souvenir stalls at the MBK shopping mall in Bangkok remain closed with no customers around. (Photo: UCA News)

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On a good day, a clothing store specializing in sporty streetwear at the popular MBK shopping mall in central Bangkok had sales of around 30,000 baht, or US$1,000. On a not so good day, it sold merchandise to the value of some 20,000 baht.

But that was in January and February before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

These days, with barely any customers around, sales have plummeted to 1,000 baht a day or less.

“The other day we did not have any customers at all. We didn’t sell anything,” laments the store manager, a Thai Muslim woman who identifies herself by her first name, Amina. “It has been like this since we reopened in early May.”

The store employs four people, but unless sales pick up soon they will have to be let go and the store may close.

And sales might not pick up any time soon as this clothing store relies primarily on foreign tourists, especially from India, the Middle East and Europe.

With Thailand’s borders having been closed to foreign tourists since March in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the country’s tourism industry has been in freefall.

Yet it isn’t just tourism hotspots that are feeling the pinch but numerous small businesses as well.

On the sprawling mall’s fifth and sixth floors, which are dedicated almost entirely to the sale of handmade souvenirs, T-shirts and other goods aimed at tourists, a similarly bleak scene awaits. Many stalls have been closed down permanently.

On the afternoon of June 30, the owners of numerous small stalls were cleaning up and moving out for good, unable to pay rent any longer for want of customers. Even the stalls that remain open are facing an uncertain future.

“Business is very bad,” says a Burmese woman from the Mandalay area of Myanmar who works at a stand on the mall’s fifth floor selling wood carvings and other souvenirs. “I sit here alone all day waiting for someone to come. Normally no one comes.”

Thailand has been cited as a success story for containing the potentially deadly coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan late last year. As of July 1, the country had reported 3,169 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 58 deaths linked to the infection. The Southeast Asian nation has had no recorded cases of local transmission for over a month.

Yet this success has come at the expense of the vital tourism and service sectors, which have long underpinned its economy. Millions of Thais and migrant workers have been out of a job for months in these sectors and countless businesses have stayed closed. Many may never reopen.

Although Thailand is set to allow 50,000 select foreigners to enter in July, their number will be negligible compared to the more than three million or so foreigners who entered the country on average each month before the pandemic. The borders have been closed for three months and the longer they remain closed to mass tourism, the worse the economic prospects of millions of Thais will become.

According to a new survey by United Kingdom-based market research company YouGov, more than three out of five local respondents, or 63 percent, want to see the country’s borders reopen to international travelers in coming months.

That should come as no surprise. Across Thailand, once-thriving tourism hotspots have been deserted for much of this year, with hotels shuttered, restaurants and bars closed, and small businesses forced into a prolonged state of hibernation.

“Bangkok at night is deserted as never before,” a Thai man who lives near a tourist and entertainment hub told Xinhua News Agency. “I can’t believe it is a tourist haven where I’ve been living all my life. It’s almost a ghost town.”

And seaside tourism-dependent towns, such as Pattaya on the country’s eastern seaboard and the island of Phuket in the south, have been even harder hit economically than Bangkok. It may well take several years for their rates of tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels.

A continued absence of foreign customers is especially hurting locals who can ill afford to go without steady incomes for much longer, including small business owners and low-wage earners.

According to a recent survey of 1,400 Thai employees and 400 employers, a quarter have already lost their jobs or have been placed on unpaid leave in recent months. Nearly half of those who have managed to retain their jobs have seen their pay decrease with no overtime pay or the lack of bonuses.

“The hardest-hit groups are those with a monthly salary below 16,000 baht,” said Pornladda Dathratwibul, country manager of JobsDB, an employment search firm.

Amina, the store manager in the MBK shopping mall, is concerned she and her colleagues might soon find themselves out of a job too. “So far we’re coping as best as we can,” she says. “But I don’t know how much longer we can go on like this.”

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