Tourism, not only in Thailand, but all over the world, was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Hotels shut down. Tour companies closed. Airplanes grounded. Millions lost their jobs.
Before diving into Thailand’s tourism situation, here’s a quick look at what’s going on in some of the world’s top tourist spots…
Dubai, with its huge chunks of expats and visitors, bit the bullet late last year to re-open for tourism and international visitors, while in Europe, the UK and America, the virus raged as the northern winter set in.
The bustling city, which before the 70s was just a sandy coastal fishing port, has exploded into being a sparkling attraction for tourists. Over the past few months it’s provided a realistic escape from Europe, the few adventurous travellers trying to escape the brutal winter and strict coronavirus lockdowns. It helped that Emirates Airline was still providing services from most of the major hubs in Europe.
But as tens of thousands of visitors flocked there to escape the cold, Covid-19 inevitably followed, despite precautions aimed at limiting its spread. Cases began to soar, nearly quadrupling since last November.
In January, the UAE saw cases rise by 80,000 to more than 290,000… more than 4,000 infections a day being reported, putting their hospitals under strain.
Back in November, influencers were paid to post photos of the sun-soaked beaches and long hot days. If you still had time, could travel, had disposable income and the desire, Dubai was an attractive magnet.
But with a recent UK travel ban effectively cutting off what in December had become the world’s busiest air route, Dubai’s openness is now facing enormous challenges, a situation that’s prompted a swift rethink of the UAE’s Covid-19 measures.
Helal Saeed Al Marri, director general of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce says… “we approach things in a very measured fashion, but it’s our philosophy that we should work through this pandemic.”
The Maldives are another example where they threw caution to the wind and re-opened for tourists late last year, with minimal restrictions. The needs of the heavily tourist-based economy outweighed the public health risks. There too, there’s been a spike in new Covid infection and deaths over the past month.
In Costa Rica, after reaching a peak of 10-20 deaths from the coronavirus in September last year, the rate has continued unabated since, although there has been a very gradual decrease in the number of new infections. But the tourist numbers are still well below pre-covid times. In 2019 Costa Rica had just over 3 million visitors. Last year the Central American country hosted just a million visitors, the vast majority in the first quarter of 2020, before the shutters came down on borders around the world.
Since re-opening some 75,000 tourists visited Costa Rica in December, down 80% for the year before. But officials say they’re determined to keep the country open, hoping to be magnet for any of the handful of world travellers.
Right now there’s no official lockdown in Bali or Indonesia. But cases in the South East Asian country are soaring… during January there were 12-14,000 new infections reported every day. World health officials suspect the number is probably a lot higher.
In Bali, you must wear mask outside. Markets have to close at 11pm. And, besides, there are no direct international flights into Bali at the moment and the Indonesian government has stopped issuing any visas at this time, whether for business or tourism.
In Thailand, the gravity of the impact on the country’s tourist sector appears to have eventually sunk in. After a year of hubris that the world’s tourists were ready to burst through Thailand’s doors, even the perennially-positive TAT governor Yuttthasak Suphasorn admitted that it will be another 2-3 years before any semblance of a tourism industry returns.
His comments were made at the same time as industry leaders urge the Thai government to save what is left of the shattered tourism sector, before it is too late and there is literally nothing for foreign tourists to return to.
It was only 2 months ago that the Minister for Tourism and Sport announced Thailand could look forward to 10 million visitors in 2021. In January he casually carved that prediction in half to just 5 million. A realistic prediction would be more like 500,000… but even that will require a few things falling in Thailand’s favour in short order…
Large scale vaccination of its population, and a quick improvement in the world’s infection rate and re-opening of other country’s borders.
For the latter, it’s just impossible to track Covid-19 trends, especially as we’re now seeing new variants of the virus popping up, challenging earlier treatment regimes and the possible effectiveness of the current vaccines rolling out around the world.
For the former, the vacillation of the Thai government, and the inability to announce firm starting dates for widespread vaccination, make local predictions about re-opening impossible.
Every week there’s a new announcement about a new program, vaccine passports, a new batch of alleged vaccines just about to land on Thailand’s shores. The travel and hospitality industry jump on these scraps of information and write long essays about the imminent return of tourists to Thailand, only to have to eat their words days after when the government’s promises evaporate, again.
The 2021 Chinese Year will come and go, a purely domestic celebration this year. The next hope is Songkran, the biggest annual movement of Thais as they celebrate the Thai New Year. That will also be another purely domestic affair but, hopefully, the local Covid situation will have settled down enough so that, at least, Thais will be able to freely travel on buses and planes to head home and go on a short holiday.
But the TAT Governor has guarded any predictions for the next few years with a warning for everyone in Thailand’s tourism industry. In three words he made it abundantly clear that the road ahead remains rocky… he said…. “Grit your teeth”.
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