Dispatch

Tourists Dwindle as Thailand Readies for Coronavirus Threat

Billions of dollars are at stake as Bangkok walks the line between closing borders and angering Beijing.

Palace guards wear medical masks in Bangkok on Feb. 4.
Palace guards wear medical masks in Bangkok on Feb. 4. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

BANGKOK—As more Chinese cities lock down their populations out of fear of the coronavirus, China’s neighbors are stirring uneasily. One of the most fraught is Thailand, which sees 11 million Chinese travelers a year and has been described by population mappers as one of the countries most at risk. The reactions have ranged from panic to preparation.

On Monday, police showed up at a Waraphat Thapiang’s khaosoi restaurant in Mae On district east of Chiang Mai. “We have to apologize for all Chainese [sic] and foreign consumer at the moment,” a cardboard sign outside the restaurant read. “We couldn’t services to you because of coronavirus problem.” The owner removed the sign at police instruction and replaced it with one in Chinese saying the restaurant was out of food.

At the other end of the country, on Thailand’s biggest and most famous island, Vachira Phuket Hospital set up a mobile respiratory disease screening point to cope with the more than 100 people a day who for the past week had come to its doors concerned they were showing symptoms.

In the capital, Thailand’s Anti-Fake News Center, a government-run program largely used for censorship purposes, arrested two people in Bangkok, one for posting a video claiming a drunk man passed out at Suvarnabhumi Airport had died of the virus. Both face five years in prison if convicted.

The first Thai person infected with the coronavirus was detected on Jan. 22; the next day, China canceled outbound flights from Wuhan, where the virus originated, and then later all those from Hubei province. Thailand has been managing a balancing act with its most important overseas visitors.

With more than two dozen cases of coronavirus and the first recorded person-to-person transmission outside of China, the authorities find themselves rebutting wild claims almost daily. Just four days after an announcement that China would halt overseas group tours, the Anti-Fake News Center reviewed nearly 7,600 posts reported as “fake news.”

Even Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha weighed in, warning a group of reporters against spreading panic: “You can burn anything you like, but do not burn your own country—burning it with distortion, with fake news. I am not quarreling with you, but I must warn you.”

But on the ground, the response is often more staid: face masks on the metro line; signs of support for the people of Wuhan; and bottles of hand sanitizer inside mall entrances.

Beyond the internet trolls mining for clicks and misinterpreted reports, some in the government made early calls to take harsher measures against Chinese visitors. Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul hoped to scrap the visa-on-arrival program for Chinese travelers out of Hubei province and ban Chinese flights altogether, later backtracking.

“This is a delicate issue for Thailand, which requires input from every agency. We should not act like we’re eager to cut off our close friends just because they are falling ill,” Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said.

Thailand is in a unique position in the Mekong region. Though it’s not as combative on China policy as Vietnam, unlike Cambodia and Laos, Thailand is not completely in thrall to China. Ties with the United States remain strong, though weakened in recent years after the Thai junta moved closer to Beijing.

Economic issues are also at stake. A week after the Lunar New Year holiday ended, more than 300 buses normally ferrying Chinese travelers around the island of Phuket sat idle. “With no [Chinese] tour groups, we have no jobs and no money,” a tour bus operator told the Bangkok Post.

“As the only real media agency on the island, we have been covering the coronavirus saga since the outset,” Phuket News editor Ben Tirebuck said. “The drop-off is clearly evident as the roads, tourist attractions, and retail outlets are much quieter than usual. … I was personally at Central Festival Mall yesterday, usually teeming with Chinese shoppers, and there were no more than a handful present.”

Phuket finds itself particularly vulnerable to changes in the tourism landscape. Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, the president of the Thai Hotels Association’s southern chapter, confirmed that 15 of the 100 member hotels had suffered 100 percent cancellations of Chinese group tour bookings. And the number of so-called “free independent travelers” from China was also falling dramatically, Tirebuck said.

The Phuket News reported on Feb. 3 that Phuket Gov. Phakaphong Tavipatana requested 20 billion baht ($640 million) in assistance to cover the potential losses from the fallout of the coronavirus, including loans to support tourism with 2 percent interest—the same rate as the soft loans provided after the 2004 tsunami.

Phuket had already seen a drop in numbers after the tragic boat accident that took 47 Chinese lives in July 2018. The coronavirus puts a further strain on the island’s need for Chinese travelers. Some 11 million Chinese visited Thailand in 2019, 28 percent of all overseas visitors, and due to the coronavirus, that number is expected to fall to 9 million this year, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. That may well be an underestimate if the viral panic lasts beyond March. The drop in travel from China could result in 50 billion baht ($1.6 billion) of lost tourism revenue, the Tourism and Sports Ministry estimated late last month.

Anusorn Tamajai, the director of Rangsit University’s Economic and Business Research Center for Reform, has warned that it’s not just the tourism sector that will see a hit from the coronavirus but also agriculture, which Anusorn predicts will drop 1-2 percent. With Thailand’s key index down 100 points and the baht, the strongest currency in the region against the dollar, hitting a seven-month low, all eyes are north to see how the virus will affect trade. The agricultural sector—and in particular the import of durian into China—could seriously impact Thailand’s trade in 2020.

Just off Sukhumvit Road in downtown Bangkok, signs of support for the people of Wuhan read: “Our Hearts to Wuhan.” Thailand’s response garnered praise from Chinese state media personalities, and even King Maha Vajiralongkorn sent out a heartfelt message of support.

That said, some have seized on the virus as an opportunity for anti-Chinese and anti-foreigner sentiment. Most recently, the Thai public health minister, who earlier took aim at Chinese travelers’ flights and visas, chided white foreigners for not wearing face masks, saying, “Ai farangs [white foreigners] … are not wearing masks. … We’re handing them out, and they still refuse. They should be kicked out of Thailand!” He continued: “The Chinese, the Asians—they are all taking [masks], but those Europeans … that’s unbelievable.”

“It is difficult to gauge whether true anti-Chinese sentiment exists here, as the tourism industry, and thus the livelihood of so many locals, has become so dependent on Chinese visitors, so it becomes a kind of Catch-22 scenario with many remaining tight-lipped as to their true feelings,” said Tirebuck, adding that many people he has spoken to are, however, concerned about Phuket and Thailand prioritizing the economy over its citizens’ health.

Thailand, which has an extremely developed medical infrastructure, has also been part of the battle for answers to the virus. Two doctors out of Rajavithi Hospital, just around the corner from Thailand’s Victory Monument, have reported that the flu drug oseltamivir combined with antivirals common for the treatment of HIV treated a 70-year-old woman in 48 hours.

Though judging the efficacy of the cocktail is premature in the extreme, future patients in Thailand will be treated with this flu and HIV drug combination, Kriangska Atipornwanich, a lung specialist at Rajavithi, told the press, while stressing, “This is not the cure.”

Tyler Roney is a journalist in Thailand.

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