As coronavirus resurges in Thailand, tourism businesses go on life support

Helping to push a stone slab with a carving of a Hindu deity into the earth, Kampon Tansacha said he faced a stark choice in deciding what to do with the army of staff that looked after his botanical garden outside the Thai resort city of Pattaya: close the garden and let them go unpaid, or keep it open and soak up the losses with no visitors.
Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Noongnooch Tropical Garden used to welcome up to 9,000 visitors a day – mostly Chinese tour groups – to drift across the 670 acres of immaculately landscaped gardens, which are studded with stupas, nurseries and life-size statues of dinosaurs.
“Then we went down to just a few hundred Thais each day,” he told This Week in Asia, before finally shutting down on Monday as part of the latest Covid-19 controls sweeping Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.
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To keep his 3,000 staff members working, Kampon has been busy refining the 40-year-old gardens, which before the virus upended global travel drew more than three million visitors a year, making it a fixture of global garden “Top 10” lists.
“We’re losing income every day,” he said. “I told my staff we have two choices: close the park or keep it open, but they’ll have to work extra hard so that we’re ready to receive visitors when everything is open again.”
Staying afloat is a rare privilege in the obliterated tourist landscape of Thailand , which welcomed just under 40 million overseas visitors in 2019. Last year the figure slumped to 6.7 million.
“Only 30 per cent of tourism businesses are still operating,” Adith Chairattananon, the vice-president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, told reporters on Wednesday.
Thanawat Polwichai, rector of University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce, said at a media briefing on Thursday that it was advising the government to “inject at least 200 billion baht (US$6.6 million) immediately to help those affected by the new outbreak before things get worse”.
Thailand is now bracing to see how hard the second wave of the coronavirus hits, weeks after a cluster emerged among migrant workers – mostly from Myanmar – who staff the multibillion dollar fishing industry in the port city of Samut Sakhon.
Since then the virus has bounced across the country, aided in part by clusters sprouting from illegal gambling dens and a government that did not try to stop Thais from travelling to see their loved ones during the New Year’s holiday.
Health authorities recorded more than 300 new cases on Thursday and another death, taking the toll to 67 – significant for a country that at the end of Lunar New Year last February was able to smother the spread of the virus despite the presence of millions of tourists.
Partial lockdowns – with bars, massage parlours, night markets closed and restaurants serving takeaway only or on restricted in-dining hours – now cover several of the so-called red-zone provinces, including Bangkok and Chonburi, home to Pattaya.
An order published in the Royal Gazette and effective starting on Thursday banned all but “essential” travel between the five worst-hit provinces in the country, punishable by fines and even jail.
Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy was already on life-support before the resurgence, with GDP expected to contract by six per cent in 2020, millions unemployed and record household debt continuing to soar. But caught between trying to salvage the economy and preventing a public health catastrophe, the government of Prayuth Chan-ocha has been accused of achieving neither.
“I want the government to be clear on exactly what we should do,” said Chawalit Daomukda, a tour operator in Pattaya who switched the focus of his business from independent Chinese travellers to Thais in recent months.
“If they want us to lock down, then declare it and give us some financial help,” he said, explaining that the second coronavirus wave means “it’s pretty much game over for me”.
The government’s reluctance to formally announce a lockdown has left many businesses staggering on, still responsible for staff wages even though their revenues have dried up.
That has angered many, like Chawalit, turning the heat on a government already battered for much of 2020 by pro-democracy protests.
“How are we going to get through this crisis when there’s no leadership in this country?” he asked.
Prayuth, whose government last year approved stimulus measures worth a total of nearly US$60 billion to ride out the pandemic, has tried to reassure the public that with vaccines ordered for midyear, the country only has another few months to hold out.
“We’re considering how we’re going to help the 40 million people” impacted by the virus, Prayuth told the Thai media on Tuesday. “It’ll be costly, but rest assured the government still has enough cash.”
But he gave no clear details on how the state will aid the millions of people who face the prospect of unemployment as businesses fold.
“The government seems to have not learned much from the previous outbreak,” veteran opposition politician Chaturon Chaisang said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “The state is issuing orders (for partial lockdowns) that will leave millions unemployed unnecessarily.”
The political dimension to the health crisis has been exacerbated in one of the world’s least equitable countries, where the government is facing increasing anger for allowing big shopping malls and 7-Eleven convenience stores – which are owned by Thailand’s tycoons – to remain open, while small businesses are forced to close.
“The people are fed up with the government’s handling of the situation,” pro-democracy protest leader Pasarawalee “Mind” Thanakitwibul told reporters on Thursday at the police station where she was summoned to hear the charges levied against her for insulting the monarchy.
“Because of the outbreak it’s not sensible to be on the streets, but we will return with a bang for sure.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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