This is supposed to be the peak period for tourism in Thailand, with beaches and major attractions being packed with visitors – especially from China.
But many such places are now half-empty or almost empty after China suspended tours abroad on Jan 27 in the light of the worsening coronavirus outbreak. Chinese tourists make up the largest single group of visitors to Thailand, South-east Asia’s second-largest economy.
“I am about to lose my job. We have to wrap up this season now. The Chinese tours are done,” said Mr Haranyawat Saengprasit, a manager and guide at a speedboat tour company in the southern province of Phang Nga which caters exclusively to Chinese tourists.
“There are other things I can do though. I might open a food stall or a second-hand clothes shop. But it is the people working under me that I am worried about,” said the 39-year-old, whose company is expected to shut its operations in the province in a few days, leaving 40 workers jobless.
The tourism season in Thailand typically ends in May and resumes in October.
Many other tourist operators are also having to shut down in the wake of the virus outbreak.
For All Star Cruise, a cruise company in Pattaya, a beach town two hours’ drive from Bangkok, the indefinite closure since Feb 1 was as much about the lack of customers as health concerns.
“If we set sail at this rate, we will be running at a loss. It is just not worth it,” said Ms Suthasinee Srimala, an executive in charge of selling All Star tickets. More than two-thirds, or 70 per cent, of 300 tickets are bought each day by Chinese tourists.
“More importantly, we are concerned about our staff’s exposure to the virus. Better be safe than sorry,” she added.
Around 11 million Chinese visited Thailand last year, making up a sizeable proportion of the 40 million tourist in total. Almost a million visitors from China came to Thailand in January alone.
Thai Immigration said more than 800,000 left Thailand as of Feb 2. Over 1,300 Chinese na-tionals from Wuhan remain in the kingdom.
Number of Chinese visitors to Thailand last year, out of the total tourist arrivals of 40 million.
According to the most recent available figures, 25 people in Thailand have the coronavirus infection. At least three involve local transmissions.
Tourist operators are not the only ones bearing the brunt.
“Today, I only got 2,000 baht (S$90) from sales, the lowest it has ever been,” said Ms Pakaiwan Suksompong, a women clothes shop owner at the Platinum mall in downtown Bangkok, which is usually packed with Chinese shoppers.
“I will need to talk to the mall management soon to see if they can reduce the rent next month. If not, I might really have to close the shop. Maybe I will just sell surgical masks instead,” added the 32-year-old, who typically earns 10,000 baht a day.
Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan estimated that the overall economic loss would be 300 billion baht for the first half of the year, providing the outbreak is contained by next month and the economy recovers by July.
On Tuesday, the Thai Cabinet approved a series of temporary assistance measures for affected businesses, but several tourist operators dismissed them as “too little, too late”.
“The measures aren’t the right answer when those shutting down are not given immediate help,” said Mr Wasan Jittmonkong, the general manager of Century Park hotel in Bangkok, where bookings have dropped by a quarter compared with the same period last year.
“The government also needs to do more to encourage do-mestic tourism and look for new markets.”
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