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Thailand

Thai temples struggle without tourist income

Buddhist temples that relied heavily on donations from foreign tourists are now struggling to outlast the pandemic

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Published: June 07, 2021 06:06 AM GMT

Updated: June 07, 2021 06:14 AM GMT

Thai temples struggle without tourist income

Wat Pho in Bangkok used to receive up to 10,000 foreign visitors a day. (Photo: YouTube)

Buddhist temples in Thailand are feeling the financial effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as the absence of tourism has meant a lack of donations and other sources of income needed for monks to maintain their monastic lifestyles, according to experts and resident monks.

This is especially the case in cities such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai that were popular with tourists before the pandemic.

Wat Pho, popularly known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok used to receive up to 10,000 foreign visitors a day, according to the monastery’s assistant abbot, Phra Rattanasunthorn.

Each foreign visitor was required to pay an entrance fee of 100 baht (US$3.25) at the highly popular temple, which was also visited by Pope Francis during his trip to the Thai capital in November 2019.

However, as Thailand’s borders have stayed closed to mass tourism for more than a year, that revenue source has disappeared.

At the same time, it costs the temple some 3 million baht ($96,000) a month to pay for water, electricity and the salaries of employees who work on the premises, including administrators, security guards and maintenance staff.

Losses have been significant for members of the monastic community and small businesses that thrive near these famous temple complexes

“If the tourists come, we can stay here [at this historic temple],” the assistant abbot told a Thai newspaper recently. “But if the tourists don’t come, it is hard for us to continue living here.”

A similar situation has prevailed at other popular temples in Bangkok’s historic heart, in Chiang Mai and elsewhere around Thailand.

“Some Buddhist temples that relied heavily on donations from foreign tourists are now struggling to outlast the pandemic,” explains Brooke Schedneck, an assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in the United States who did research in Thailand.

“Losses have been significant for members of the monastic community and small businesses that thrive near these famous temple complexes. Many vendors who sell water, street food and souvenirs around the temple have lost their incomes.”

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Millions of low-income Thais work in the country’s informal tourism-dependent economy and most of them have been without incomes for months, even a year, as a result of the pandemic, whose latest phase has seen infection rates and deaths both remain relatively high in Thailand.

According to a survey conducted by the National Statistics Office in 2018, more than 21 million Thais, in a country of 69 million, worked in the informal sector, with a similar proportion of men and women.

Some 40 million foreign tourists visited Thailand, one of the world’s most popular destinations, in 2019.  Since the pandemic started in early 2020, however, the number of foreign visitors has dwindled to economically negligible levels.

With the absence of foreign tourists, several popular initiatives conducted at Buddhist temples, such as regular interfaith dialogues between Buddhist monks and foreign visitors called Monk Chats, have also been held in abeyance.

“It is difficult to measure these losses, but undoubtedly they will leave a deep impact for some time to come,” Schedneck says.

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