Paradise Lost: Thailand Abandoned

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Today, tourist Thailand is but the shadow of itself. Or so the main tourist spots on the coast and its famous islands appear to be.

The region is a non-stop entertainment and servicing machine. 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.  As there is no cold season, it is a constant flow of tourists, with peaks at Christmas and during the summer vacations.

The holiday industry has already survived devastating crises, including the 2004 tsunami, avian flu and the Sars outbreak. Yet, none compares to the coronavirus pandemic. During previous crises, the industry lost approximately a fifth of its revenue, according to data released by the Ministry of Tourism.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic could cause a drop of 80% of profits, maybe more. According to a recent survey by the Bank of Thailand, over the next three months, over half the country’s hotels will shut down permanently, having depleted all savings and available funds. The large chains have also shut down most of their hotels, and for some it was a farewell and not good-bye.

Once attracting millions of visitors every year, these cities and destinations are now ghost towns. Walking through the streets of Koh Samui you get the feeling you are on the set of an apocalyptic movie. Or at Fukushima after the nuclear plant exploded. The streets are deserted, stores, bars, restaurants, shut. Abandoned. The tropical vegetation is slowly eating up the buildings. The jungle is taking over. What is most striking is probably the silence.

The owner of the only store open along the whole of Chaweng Beach road confirms he has never seen anything like it in all these years. “Usually, it’s hard to even walk here, there are so many people at all hours of the day and night that there’s no way you can cross it even with a moped. These days I park my car in front of the store and I’m the only one on the street to open their store, there is nobody else. Even those who had resisted are now leaving.”

The same is true of Koh Chang, one of the country’s largest islands and a favorite holiday destination for both tourists and Bangkok residents. It is a beautiful place, with a lush vegetation. Elephants snooze as the monkeys, once relegated to the island’s interior, are taking over the areas inhabited by man. They move in groups, undisturbed, between the rooftop of a deserted luxury resort and an abandoned café.

Tourism in Thailand accounts for approximately 20% of the country’s GDP, a figure which is probably underestimated if we take into account the amount of undeclared work and the “invisible” labor typical of the tourist sector.  (The entire industry employs approximately 4.4 million people if we count transport, travel agencies, restaurants and hotels). The city of Pattaya itself counts over 15 million visitors per year; if we consider that currently we can count just a few thousand per year (prevalently foreign residents or city-dwellers from Bangkok who want to spend a few ours by the ocean) we realize the extent to which these numbers have affected the social and economic fabric.

Some 40 million tourists flocked to Thailand last year, attracted by its spectacular beaches, its ornate temples and its renowned cuisine. Today the country is closed, and it has been for nearly two years now. The island of Koh Samui is the perfect example of just how devastating the effects and impacts of this closure have been.

Apart from the complete absence of tourists, most of the work force came from outside provinces. Having lost their jobs, they have returned to their land of origin; often thousands of kilometers away, with few or no probabilities, nor the desire to return. Many have sold all they owned and have set off.

A member of staff at a local massage parlor in Chaweng tells us that before the coronavirus he would attend to up to 90 clients per day. Today all 20 the parlor’s employees have left the island and returned to their villages in central Thailand.

On the island it has become difficult to find and open restaurant, especially in the more touristy areas and along the main roads. In the center of a completely abandoned area, along a road which runs parallel to the sea, we met an old lady, Pa Samraow, in front of her small restaurant. We spent over an hour with her, talking as we ate. Nobody else stopped. In actual fact, nobody even went by, even though it is the only road which goes round the whole island.

“I opened my little restaurant ten years ago, in the past business was very good. I sold about 3 kilos of rice every day. Everybody knows me here in the area. Thai tourists, Chinese, Westerners, they all loved my food. Business and life were good. Now, as you can see there is nobody left. It’s a miracle if I even sell one kilo of rice. The price of pork, chicken and eggs has risen, I find it hard to buy supplies for the kitchen”.

The same is happening in Krabi, another popular tourist destination. The nightclubs are run down, and the famous Raylai Beach is deserted. Even the timeless 7-11s, the famous Asian grocery stores have shut down everywhere. Abandoned Mc Donald’s and hotels are falling to pieces.

Destitute people who have not been able to return home sleep in ruins and in what used to be bars full of girls and tourists partying. Most places were abandoned hastily, just like in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

The bars still have all their chairs, televisions, cash registers and glasses. Everything is covered in dust or ruined by rain and the humidity. Those who rented mopeds abandoned them and left without thinking twice. Maybe they went bankrupt, maybe they were foreigners and returned to their country.

Stores and nightclubs seem to have stopped in that fatal moment when they were brought to their knees. That prompted managers and owners to abandon them forever.

The implications are numerous, nobody knows when or how the country will reopen again. Everybody hopes it will be soon, but there are no certain dates.

In truth, it will be very complex for these place to return to their ancient splendor. To reopen a hotel requires specialized labor, qualified staff, laundries, transport, food and drink supplies.

All these activities have disappeared, and it will take time before the entire supply chain can be rebuilt. Without counting the fact that many places are now greatly run down and it will take new investments, ideas and the will to invest. And we shall see who will have the courage to do so. And how.