This photo taken on October 26, 2021 shows people lounging by a hotel swimming pool on the Thai island of Phuket, as tourists take advantage of the “Phuket Sandbox” program for visitors fully vaccinated against the Covid-coronavirus. 19. AFP PHOTO
BANGKOK: Hotels, street food carts and tuk-tuks gear up for the return of tourists to Bangkok as Thailand prepares to reopen on November 1 to fully vaccinated visitors after 18 months of Covid travel restrictions.
But the scorching metropolis, the most visited city in the world before the pandemic, will take some time to regain its throbbing and intoxicating former self, according to industry experts.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought visitors down from 40 million in 2019 to just 73,000 in the first eight months of 2021, leaving its economy dependent on tourism recording its worst performance in more than two decades.
Authorities are desperate to revive the sector – which represents a fifth of the economy – although Thailand still registers around 10,000 Covid infections per day and the vaccination rate lags by around 40%.
The government is hoping that a plan to phase out strict quarantine rules could attract visitors to bars and beaches despite the prevalence of the virus.
“We estimate that the tourism industry will return to normal levels by the middle of next year,” Bangkok Metropolitan Administration spokesman Pongsakorn Kwanmuang said.
The kingdom expects at least one million visitors to return by March and will generate around $ 30 billion in revenue until 2022, authorities say.
The absence of visitors has left an undeniable impact on Bangkok’s Chinatown, with shuttered shops visible in neon light and lines of empty tuk-tuks.
Samran, a driver for 25 years, has seen his income drop by 90% and only earns $ 3 a day.
“I want to quit but I’m old, no one will hire me for anything else,” said the 58-year-old.
“I haven’t picked up a single tourist since April 2020.”
It was at this point that Thailand closed its airspace to international flights in an attempt to keep Covid at bay.
After that restriction was relaxed, authorities imposed a 14-day hotel quarantine, discouraging all but the most determined travelers.
A program to make it easier to visit the southern holiday island of Phuket, introduced in July as a first step towards normalcy, has drawn only a few tens of thousands – a drop in the ocean.
In a bid to cauterize the hemorrhagic economy, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha announced a phased plan for reopening Thailand.
From November 1, fully vaccinated visitors from more than 40 ‘low risk’ countries will be allowed to enter with a negative Covid result, retesting again upon arrival.
The list includes a large number of European countries as well as China and the United States.
China is the biggest source of tourists to Thailand, with 11 million visitors in 2019.
But with Beijing imposing a minimum two-week quarantine on returnees, few Chinese vacationers are likely to arrive on the kingdom’s sunny beaches in November.
There is also no sign that India or Russia – two other major sources of visitors – will be added to the list anytime soon.
The second step in the reopening, slated for December 1, is to end a seven-month alcohol ban on bars and restaurants – a move according to industry figures is vital to attracting thirsty visitors who seek to relax.
“We are really waiting for the Thai government to lift the alcohol ban, as that does not encourage tourists to come back,” said Daniel Kerr, general manager of the Chatrium hotel.
The five-star property sits on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, and only 10% of its 400 rooms were occupied at the height of the Covid crisis.
Things are accelerating now, with more than half of rooms booked for New Years celebrations, although 85% of those bookings are from Thais.
“I won’t survive this”
The prolonged shutdown has “devastated” the hotel industry, Thai Hotels Association president Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi said, adding that nearly half of the industry’s workers have been left out of work due to the closures and layoffs.
With Bangkok’s remaining hotels chasing so few visitors, the industry must adapt to compete, drastically reducing room rates.
“A fierce price war has been declared between hotels as supply will remain very abundant for a long time relative to demand,” she said.
These challenges hamper Marisa’s expectations for the reopening.
“If in the next few months we manage to fill the hotels to 25-30% of their capacity, it will be a success,” said Marisa, but she does not anticipate a return to normal until 2024.
For those at the forefront of the industry, the recovery may come too late, especially with the limited state support offered.
“I won’t survive this,” said Samran, a tuk-tuk driver. “What do they want? Do they want me to beg in the streets? Do they want me to starve?