Coronavirus updates for the island of Phuket and Asia

Over the past 25 years, Phuket island, 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.

A year ago 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 the 39 million tourists a year ago, more than 10 million were Chinese.

So once the Chinese government quarantined the city of Wuhan on 23 January, and stopped all overseas tours, the impact was felt immediately in Phuket in Thailand. Shopping malls and temples in Bangkok were suddenly much quieter and less crowded.

As more flights from China were cancelled, the airports emptied. You may whisk yourself through passport control in no time.

For small-scale entrepreneurs, the collapse of Chinese tourism has been disastrous.

Phuket, Thailand travel offices around the island offering cheap priced Phuket properties 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 instance flower sellers, traditional dancers, the island of Phuket pubs, 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 island thinks 25,000 people are now out of work.
Image caption Nattakit Lorwitworrawat’s business is currently struggling as a result of insufficient customers

Among the first successes of Phuket, Thailand’s 60-year-long tourist boom was the island of Phuket, nicknamed the “Pearl of the Andaman” because of its soft white-sand beaches and sparkling warm seas.

The very first foreign visitors in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly European and Australian, but how many Chinese visitors a year ago shot up to about two million out from 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 in actuality the boats leave from to take tourists out to the islands offshore. Like a lot of Phuket’s residents, Nattakit Lorwitworrawat moved here from his home town elsewhere in the island of Phuket in Thailand to take up a business.

His company now owns 30 speed boats, each able to hold 30 people. He has already established to take 20 out of the water, and the rest of the 10 are not getting much use. The inlet, normally constantly noisy from the sound of outboard motors, is now silent independent of the birds and the lapping water.

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“At the peak, couple of years ago we carried 1,000 clients a day. Today when we get 200 clients, that’s considered great – we would be very happy with that,” says Nattakit.

He’s bank loans to service on lots of his boats. If the crisis goes on beyond the finish of in 2010, he says he will have to downsize the company and start laying off his staff.

For anyone lower down the food chain it is even tougher.

Nobody knows just how long this crisis can last, nor how serious it will become. For as soon as you can find still lots of Europeans, Australians and Russians on the famous beaches, but for how long?

The authorities here have managed to manage and monitor infections well considering how vulnerable it was from the number of Chinese people visiting ahead of the restrictions on travel were implemented.

Yet the nation had been placed on some government lists of places 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 in Thailand.

Families with children from Europe or Australia will probably think before travelling so far. And Phuket, Thailand is currently imposing its restrictions, requiring 14-day quarantine for visitors from some countries, a listing that may well expand.

Who’ll risk booking a holiday in sunlight when they end up spending it confined for their college accommodation or perhaps a hospital?

With more flights being cancelled each week, the variety 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 island’s economy has come at an awful time for the government. Already another 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 the thing that was once one of South East Asia’s “tiger economies” has been anaemic for quite some time, and may stall completely this year. The government, an unwieldy coalition controversially built around exactly the same military leaders who led the final coup, is proving clumsy and unpopular.

It is a nearly perfect storm, the one that the island of Phuket’s present leaders look ill-equipped to weather.

Find all Covid-19 updates for Phuket and Asia here.