In normal times, 80 per cent of the Phuket’s profits come from tourism, a sector that employs more than 300,000 people. In 2019, more than 9 million tourists visited Phuket, the kingdom’s second-most popular destination after Bangkok. But now, everything has been totally devastated by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Xinhua news agency’s correspondent Chen Jiabao in an article on the ongoing crisis in the tourism industry in Thailand wrote:
Five-star hotels in Bangkok, Thailand have dimmed their lights for more than half a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the country to shut its doors to foreign tourists since April.
In a once-bustling riverfront night bazaar in Bangkok, Christmas lights have been put up only to attract few visitors and the dazzling lights could hardly beat the gloom. The city is not in a festive mood.
In southern Thailand’s resort island Phuket, hotel occupancy rate hovers at less than 20 percent. “Cheaper flights, public holidays added by the government and drastic drop of hotel rates are still far less likely to win domestic tourists,” a receptionist at a local hotel told Xinhua.
Tourism and hotel industries are suffering from the absence of international tourists. Only 1,201 foreign tourists visited Thailand in October, as the country gradually opened up to a select number of visitors to help its struggling, tourism-reliant economy.
Thitiporn Maneenetr, director in charge of the East Asian market of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told Xinhua that Thailand welcomed 3.07 million foreign visitors in the same month last year. Two thirds of the kingdom’s tourism revenue comes from foreign arrivals.
“Though domestic tourism started to recover with people flocking to some destinations during weekends, it’s not enough to salve the whole industry as the domestic market contributes only 30 percent of total tourism revenue.”
Tourism-related businesses that are heavily reliant on foreign tourists have to adapt and now cater to local customers. If they keep shutting down their businesses, facilities will be run down and staffs dismissed, said Thitiporn.
“Price war will damage the whole industry. It’s the toughest challenge ever for tourism industry.”
FIND WAY OUT
Facing the pandemic-induced economic woes, some tourism-related businesses in Thailand are trying to find a connecting piece within the collapsing jigsaw.
The hotel industry is in an unprecedented crisis. “Our enemy is even invisible. Yet the pandemic has only served to push us to realign our strategies to suit domestic travellers who now seek exclusive escapes with a component of seclusive, valued-added and heightened wellness experiences,” Suphajee Suthumpun, CEO of Dusit International, a leading hotel and property development company, told Xinhua.
“We partner with travel platforms, such as travel agencies and local communities, to jointly explore some niche routes, the hidden gems that could be hardly discovered in mass tourism. We offer guests bespoke itineraries and value-added packages. We try to reinvent ourselves to stay attractive to domestic travellers,” she said.
Hotels under Dusit group are baiting consumers with bundle deals, such as the flower field trip package, including accommodation, meals, transportation and personal photographer. It offers tourists trips to less visited local communities all over the kingdom with authentic experiences.
To whet the appetite of the visitors, some hotels invite chefs from less known local restaurants with family recipes to prepare meals with distinct tastes.
The pandemic has enhanced customers’ demand for health wellness. Some Thai hotels offer personal coaching sessions with experts or celebrity trainers. Some bring medical services, sleep tests, and sound treatments to hotels.
“Hotel industry needs to diversify its services to survive. Hotel should no longer be the mere place to stay and eat, but a second home for guests to experience different life,” said Suphajee.
She said the tourism industry is suffering a reshuffle by COVID-19, adding that the hospitality sector has to undergo inevitable changes as part of the “new normal,” including an added emphasis on hygiene, a redefined business concept and design alteration.
“Integration of tourism resources and new partnerships with tour agencies seem to be the only way for operators to survive. We have to move forward together, though less profitable,” said Suphajee.
OPAQUE PROSPECT IN NEAR FUTURE
As a way to make the pandemic-hit economy move, the Thai government has given greenlight to extend a stimulus package for local tourists. The “We Travel Together” campaign, which subsidises 40 percent of hotel expenditure and airfares, is likely to run from January to March next year.
In tandem with the domestic tourism stimulus plan, the government tries to invigorate the domestic economy by holding events and festivals.
The Thailand Convention & Exhibition Bureau (TCEB) has launched a Festival Economy policy to nurture partnerships between professional festival associations and local city governments to co-create new festivals with lasting economic, social and environmental impacts.
Phuket’s old town seemed to be wakened from a long quiet low season, with people flocking to trendy destinations at the recent Living Art Festival.
TCEB is bringing new and high-profile festivals based on the city’s unique DNA. Such festivals will help attract visitors with high spending power and help revive the local economy, stimulate job creation and spur infrastructure development, said Nichapa Yoswee, TCEB senior vice president who chaired the opening ceremony of the art festival.
“We don’t focus on how much revenue it creates, we just aim to generate events to bring tourists to local communities, thus to make their business run,” she told Xinhua.
However, consumer sentiment is likely to be dented in the wake of recent surge in COVID-19 cases. With the New Year countdowns cancelled in many provinces and Samut Sakhon province, the epicenter of the latest outbreak, locked down, the prospect of tourism industry remains opaque.
The tourism sector may have to wait until 2022 to see “normal,” or 80 percent of the pre-pandemic level, as major markets are reluctant to ease travel restrictions unless there is distribution of a successful vaccine, said the Tourism Authority of Thailand.