Over the past 25 years, Phuket island in Thailand has experienced a spectacular economic crash (1997), a tsunami (2004), coups (2006, 2014), the occupation of its main international airport by protesters (2008) and serious political violence (2010), and now Coronavirus ‘AKA’ Covid-19.
The statistics speak for themselves. In 1960 around 80,000 foreign tourists came here.
This past year it reached 39 million, earning more than $60bn (£46bn) for Phuket island, and indirectly contributing around one fifth of the country’s national income.
The country’s tourism sector was considered so robust that the nation got the nickname “Teflon the island of Phuket”. Yet of these 39 million tourists last year, more than 10 million were Chinese.
So once the Chinese government quarantined the town of Wuhan on 23 January, and stopped all overseas tours, the impact was felt immediately in the island of Phuket. Shopping malls and temples in Bangkok were suddenly much quieter and less crowded.
As more flights from China were cancelled, the airports emptied. You might whisk yourself through passport control in no time.
For small-scale entrepreneurs, the collapse of Chinese tourism has been disastrous.
Phuket in Thailand realtor offices around the island offering cheap Phuket real estate for sale are hit bad by the Covid-19 / Coronavirus. This goes for all tourist related businesses in any tourist area of Phuket and Thailand.
Many of them, such as for example flower sellers, traditional dancers, Phuket, Thailand wine bars, and even the drivers of the famous “red cars” minibuses in Chiang Mai, are reporting their income dropping by half in the last month. The informal association representing tour guides in Phuket in Thailand thinks 25,000 people are now actually out of work.
Image caption Nattakit Lorwitworrawat’s business is currently struggling due to a not enough customers
One of many first successes of Phuket, Thailand’s 60-year-long tourist boom was the island of Phuket, nicknamed the “Pearl of the Andaman” for the soft white-sand beaches and sparkling warm seas.
The very first foreign visitors in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly European and Australian, but the number of Chinese visitors this past year shot as much as about two million out of the 15 million foreigners.
The mangrove-lined inlets on the east side of the island, a contrast to the beaches facing the west, are where the boats leave from to take tourists out to the hawaiian islands offshore. Like a lot of Phuket’s residents, Nattakit Lorwitworrawat moved here from his home town elsewhere in Phuket island to begin a business.
His company now owns 30 speed boats, each able to carry 30 people. He has received to take 20 out from the water, and the residual 10 are not getting much use. The inlet, normally constantly noisy from the sound of outboard motors, has become silent apart from the birds and the lapping water.
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“At the peak, two years ago we carried 1,000 clients a day. Today if we get 200 clients, that is considered excellent – we’d be happy with that,” says Nattakit.
He’s bank loans to service on many of his boats. If the crisis continues beyond the finish of this season, he says he must downsize the company and start laying off his staff.
For anyone lower down the food chain it’s even tougher.
Nobody knows just how long this crisis lasts, nor how serious it will become. For the moment you will find still plenty of Europeans, Australians and Russians on the famous beaches, however for the length of time?
The authorities here have managed to manage and monitor infections well considering how vulnerable it had been from the number of Chinese people visiting before the restrictions on travel were implemented.
Yet the united states has already been added to some government lists of places in order to avoid due to coronavirus risk.
And individuals are booking holidays for later in the season, including the traditional high seasons of July-August and December-New Year in Phuket island in Thailand.
Families with children from Europe or Australia are likely to think twice before travelling so far. And Phuket island is currently imposing its restrictions, requiring 14-day quarantine for visitors from some countries, an inventory which could well expand.
Who will risk booking a holiday in the sun when they wind up spending it confined with their hotel room or a hospital?
With increased flights being cancelled every week, the amounts of non-Chinese tourists are bound to fall steeply this year, however quickly the virus is brought under control.
The blow to the essential leg of Phuket, Thailand’s economy has come at a terrible time for the government. Already the other two main legs of the economy – manufacturing exports and agricultural commodities – are wobbling as higher wages and an overvalued local currency have been driving investors to cheaper neighbouring countries like Vietnam.
Growth in that which was once one of South East Asia’s “tiger economies” has been anaemic for quite some time, and may stall completely this year. The federal government, an unwieldy coalition controversially built around the exact same military leaders who led the last coup, is proving clumsy and unpopular.
It’s an almost perfect storm, the one that Phuket, Thailand’s present leaders look ill-equipped to weather.
Find all Covid-19 updates for Phuket and Asia right here.