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How long can Thailand survive without international tourism?

10 Sep 2020

The lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have made a heavy toll on the economy of the Southeast Asian country. Now it is slowly reopening its borders cautiously to revive its crucial tourism sector. 

Many tour operators are struggling to stay in the business without foreign travelers in Phuket, Thailand's largest island and a key tourist destination. 


"COVID-19 has been affecting us. We have had no customers since the end of March," Phuketastic Travel's caretaker told DW on condition of anonymity. According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand, most of Phuketastic Travel 's customers are Germans, who made the fourth largest group of foreign travelers to visit Phuket in 2016, after the Chinese, Russians and Australians. 

With the office of the tour firm temporarily closed during the pandemic, the 40-year-old caretaker of Phuketastic Travel faces financial hardship. Apart from monitoring the ever-changing pandemic situation there is little she can do. 


Also uncertain about the future is Thomas Moog who runs a German restaurant and offers tour services in Phuket. 


"The current crisis is worse than the tsunami [in 2004].

We cleaned up our business back then and reopened it. Now we have no idea when things will return to normal," Moog, who has been living in Thailand for nearly 20 years, told DW. 


In 2019, Phuket was visited by more than 14 million travellers, including 10 million foreign tourists. The Thai government is planning to lift the ban on international travel soon and Moog hopes that business will eventually pick up in Phuket. 


Although domestic tourists have kept the industry alive somewhat, local spending hasn't offset the slump in foreign tourism revenue. 


"The situation of tourism-related businesses in Phuket is still worrying despite domestic demand," Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association (PTA) told DW. In the first half of 2020, tourism companies in Phuket have suffered a loss of 180 billion baht (€4.84 billion/$5.72 billion) according to PTA. 

Enormous damage 

The pandemic has exposed Thailand's dependence on foreign tourists for its tourism industry. PTA's Ruktaengam says the immediate challenge is to ensure tourism businesses survive the crisis. 


Thailand has largely managed to control the spread of COVID-19, with just around 3,500 infections and 58 related deaths. 


While the shutdown has protected the country from a massive viral outbreak, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Sports it has devastated the tourism-dependent economy, which last year welcomed a record 39.8 million foreign tourists, generating 1.9 trillion baht. But this year the Bank of Thailand (BOT) expects to enter the country with just 8 million foreign visitors. Don Nakornthab, a senior official at BOT, said on Monday that the projection could be further downgraded. 


"The government must prepare a plan to attract foreign tourists, at least to certain destinations that can effectively contain the pandemic. Tourism in many areas would not survive by the end of the year without foreign visitors," Juthathip Jongwanich, associate professor at the Bangkok Faculty of Economics at Thammasat University , told DW. 

Phuket reopening plans 

Thai authorities plan to allow foreign tourists to visit the country with a pilot project called the "Phuket Model." Tourists will be required to stay in Phuket for at least 30 days, with the first 14 days in quarantine within their hotel's limited vicinity, before they can visit other areas. 


According to Ruktaengam, the authorities have developed a so-called "5 T" policy — targeted, tested, tracked, treated, and trusted — to ensure the safety of tourists and also revive the economy. 


Although local media have reported that on October 1, Phuket will reopen to international tourists, it is unclear when the "Phuket Model" comes into force. 


"When we are ready we will reopen," Ruktaengam told DW. The president of the PTA has urged caution, saying "Phuket is too bruised" and vulnerable to go wrong with the reopening. 

Can tourism rekindle? 

Many people doubt that, given the compulsory 14-day quarantine period in the hotel and other security procedures, the reopening plan will pan off. 


The "Phuket Model," according to Moog, could attract some retired people from Scandinavia and Germany who want to escape the European winter months. But he doubts they will bother to remain in quarantine for two weeks. 


However Ruktaengam is optimistic about this pilot project's success. "Despite conditions, many tourists will be interested in visiting. They will not mind spending a month in Phuket, including two weeks in quarantine."