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12 Oct 2020

Phuket becomes a ‘ghost island’

Foreign Affairs News Desk
Foreign Affairs News Desk
A man walks along the empty beach at Patong, Phuket, seen through a torn sign telling people to wear a mask. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)
A man walks along the empty beach at Patong, Phuket, seen through a torn sign telling people to wear a mask. (Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP)

Go-go dancers sit playing on their phones in empty bars lining deserted streets as this tourist island continues to reel from the ravages of the coronavirus 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 turtles 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 likely a “ghost town.”

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% this year and leave millions unemployed.

Tourism entrepreneurs believe that it can be harder to survive.

Worse than tsunami

In normal times, 80% 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. Some have accepted huge pay cuts, while others have little choice but to join the long lines at the food distribution centers or scrape together an income where they can.

With most of the business a victim of the pandemic, the local entrepreneurs say “We’re just fighting to survive.”

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.

Before the pandemic, domestic holidaymakers only made up 30 per cent 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 1,000 baht for two nights, flights included from Bangkok — but the rock-bottom prices mean hotels will likely not even recover their costs. Coronavirus pandemic is the situation much worse than the tsunami in 2004, locals said.

(With BP inputs based)

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