Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

‘Ghost is­land’ Phuket hun­kers down in tourist-free Thai­land

- Thailand · Bangkok · Phuket City

PHUKET (AFP) - Phuket’s go-go dancers sit play­ing on their phones in empty bars lin­ing de­serted streets as the Thai tourist is­land reels from the rav­ages of the pan­demic with lit­tle sign of any re­cov­ery soon.

Swim­ming pools are empty, chairs are stacked high in de­serted restau­rants and nor­mally packed beaches are so quiet they are even see­ing rare species of sea tur­tle ar­riv­ing to nest.

Last year, more than nine mil­lion tourists vis­ited Phuket, the king­dom’s sec­ond most pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion af­ter Bangkok.

To­day, nearly all the is­land’s 3,000

ho­tels are closed and the main town of Pa­tong has be­come a “ghost town”, says lo­cal ty­coon Preechawut Keesin, who owns five night­clubs and around 600 ho­tel rooms. Thai­land has so far re­mained rel­a­tively un­scathed from the global out­break with around 3,600 con­firmed cases and just a few dozen deaths.

But the king­dom’s de­ci­sion to con­cen­trate on beat­ing the virus has dealt a bru­tal blow to the econ­omy, which is ex­pected to con­tract 7-9 per­cent this year and leave mil­lions un­em­ployed. “My boss wants to help the staff keep their jobs, but I don’t think we can sur­vive af­ter the end of the year,” sighs Jan­tima Tongsri­jern, man­ager of Pum Pui bar.

In nor­mal times, 80 per­cent of the is­land’s prof­its come from tourism, a sec­tor that em­ploys more than 300,000 peo­ple.

Tens of thou­sands of those who have lost their jobs have re­turned to their home prov­inces. Life is hard for those stick­ing it out. Some have ac­cepted huge pay cuts, while oth­ers have lit­tle choice but to join the long lines at the food dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tres or scrape to­gether an in­come where they can.

Bar owner Orathai Sidel says she used to make 100,000 baht (US$ 3,200) a month in high sea­son.

With her business a vic­tim of the pan­demic, she now sells desserts from a street­side cart, mak­ing just $3 a day to try to cover her chil­dren’s school fees.

“We’re just fight­ing to sur­vive,” says fel­low street ven­dor Poi, fired in June from the restau­rant where she used to work.

Phuket has been due to wel­come Thai­land’s first for­eign tourists since April in a cau­tious ex­per­i­ment by the king­dom, but their ar­rival keeps be­ing pushed back.

And the two-week com­pul­sory quar­an­tine and high price tag -- sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars a per­son -- will mean this is a niche mar­ket.

“We will have to fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing lo­cal cus­tomers and in­di­vid­ual trav­ellers rather than mass tourism,” says Preechawut Keesin.

Be­fore the pan­demic, do­mes­tic hol­i­day­mak­ers only made up 30 per­cent of vis­i­tors to Phuket, prompt­ing the lo­cal tourism in­dus­try to re­think its business model.

Trial pack­ages are al­ready be­ing of­fered to do­mes­tic tourists for as low as US$ 30 for two nights, flights in­cluded from Bangkok -- but the rock-bot­tom prices mean ho­tels will likely not even re­cover their costs.

“We don’t ex­pect a re­turn to nor­mal for three years,” fore­casts Kongsak Khoo­pongsakorn.

“The sit­u­a­tion is much worse than af­ter the tsunami in 2004.”

 ??  ?? Bar girls wait for cus­tomers at a night­club along the pop­u­lar walk­ing street of Pa­tong in Phuket, which has seen a lack of tourists due to on­go­ing Covid re­stric­tions
Bar girls wait for cus­tomers at a night­club along the pop­u­lar walk­ing street of Pa­tong in Phuket, which has seen a lack of tourists due to on­go­ing Covid re­stric­tions

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