The tourism industry in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai continues to be the hardest hit by the latest Covid-19 outbreak, making the outlook for economic recovery more precarious and difficult.
The Bangkok Post talks to people in these two northern provinces as they demand that authorities bring back their businesses during the imminent peak tourist season. The operators are doing so despite the resurgence of local infections brought upon by Thai returnees who were infected in Myanmar.
The World Health Organization (WHO) hailed Thailand as a success story for the way it handled the pandemic, which resulted in zero local transmissions during the first six months but on Nov 26, the long “clean sheet” ended when a 29-year-old Thai woman who had spent time in Myanmar illegally entered Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai through natural channels.
After going shopping and visiting a bar and a cinema in the province, she later tested positive for Covid-19. On Friday, media outlets reported 17 new cases stemming from her — three in Chiang Mai, nine in Chiang Rai and one each in Phayao, Phichit, Ratchaburi, Sing Buri and Bangkok.
Economic recovery in Chiang Mai
The resurgence of the virus is causing an economic recovery hiccup in Chiang Mai’s rebounding tourism sector.
Before Nov 26, Chaing Mai had witnessed a 60–70% increase in tourists, according to Pallop Sae Jew, chairman of the Chiang Mai Tourism Industry Council. But it all began to change after the patient was discovered.
“About 5% of tourists have cancelled their trips to the province since the news about the infected 29-year-old,” Mr Pallop said. “Luckily, over 90% of group tourists have not cancelled their trips.”
He said most of the tourists who had cancelled were older people and employees who thought that visiting Chiang Rai would affect their work.
The province feared the cancellations would lead to a panic, so its tourism sector promptly rolled out a campaign to allay fears among visitors. The campaign pledged to offer 100,000 baht to anyone who contracted the virus in Chiang Mai, Mr Panlop said, adding it was also offering one million baht to relatives of those who died from the disease.
New fears over lockdowns
Phakkhanan Winitchai, director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Chiang Mai Office, said the situation in Chiang Mai province remained sound.
“The tourism [industry] in Chiang Mai will not be affected even if lockdowns are not implemented,” Ms Phakkhanan said, adding that the tourism industry could be hurt by mandatory quarantine measures.
Ms Phakkhanan said it was too early to conclude how significant the impact of lockdown measures would be because the number of travel cancellations was less than 10%.
Regarding the province’s monitoring and response measures, there are about 600–700 SHA-certified tourism outlets in Chiang Mai, second only to Bangkok and Phuket.
Businesses severely affected by the pandemic had recovered by 50–60% with tourism growth in November being higher than the same month last year, Ms Phakkhanan said.
La-iad Bungsrithong, president of the Northern Thai Hotels Association, admitted she was alarmed after the first local case was reported.
Nevertheless, Ms La-iad said hotel reservations in the central area of the province were higher than 80% and she was confident tourists would not panic over the situation.
A timeline of the infected woman’s travel history and government response would help shore up tourist confidence, Ms La-iad said.
The government’s “We Travel Together” initiative, which is a tourism stimulus programme, combined with tourists coming during the peak season, contributed to an increase of 25–30% in hotel reservations in Chiang Mai in November compared to the same month last year, she said, noting also that some hotels were fully booked until next year.
Concerns over closures
Hotel cancellations may seem like a minor problem but other businesses that rely on tourists have also felt the impact of the discovery of the new cases.
“The first Covid-19 local spread was a shock to us,” said Siriphong Phatthanakittikul, an executive of a karaoke pub near Chiang Mai Airport.
“We had to close for two to three months with zero revenue until the situation improved.
“However, the last two days were quiet again with less than 10% of [expected] customers coming.”
Mr Siriphong said people in Chiang Mai were anxious not to return to a lockdown so he urged everyone not to be complacent over the pandemic. After the 29-year-old woman tested positive for Covid-19 in Chiang Mai, there were obviously fewer tourists in the province, he said.
The booming flower garden business also suffered from the cancellations, said Sombun Chaipanya, owner of a garden in Mae Rim district. Flower gardens are a new popular attraction for tourists in Chiang Mai and Mr Sombun admitted he had seen many customers recently.
“I hope the situation does not get worse,” he said. “If we have another lockdown, our businesses might not survive.”
Manop Sae Chia, president of the Chiang Mai Tourist Guide Association, said tour guides were also affected by the crisis. He said the situation had improved as many travel agencies adapted to the Covid-19 situation and began catering to domestic tour arrangements. But they too are now affected by cancellations following the discovery of the new transmission.
He called on the authorities to quickly close border security loopholes, noting the tour guide business would not survive if the virus were allowed to spread again.
Economic impact in Chiang Rai
Nongyao Nateprasit, president of the Association of Northern Tourism Federation in Chiang Rai, said the province’s tourism businesses had just started to roll out a plan to recover from the crisis when the new cases were reported.
“The new round of local cases was a shock but we still believe [the fear] will be short-lived,” Ms Nongyao said.
“We are very concerned since Chaing Rai is adjacent to a country with a precarious Covid-19 situation.”
Wirote Chaya, president of the Chiang Rai Hotels Association, called for a quick response from the government to stop the spread of Covid-19 and soothe concerns.
Before the 29-year-old woman was found to be infected, hotel reservations from local visitors were at 80–90% due to the start of the peak tourism season, he said.
“All hotels in the province have measures against Covid-19,” Mr Wirote said. “There is currently no lockdown or 14-day quarantine [required] in Chiang Rai.”
Prachon Pratsakul, governor of Chiang Rai, said the province had stepped up measures along the border and threatened to take legal action against officers found guilty of being involved in aiding illegal entries into the kingdom.
He admitted that the discovery of the recent cases had worried local people but said: “I believe the government’s Covid-19 measures can still sustain confidence in the country.”
By Panumet Tanraksa