Within the last 25 years, Phuket in 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.
Yet 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 in Thailand, 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 Phuket island, Thailand”. Yet of these 39 million tourists a year ago, over 10 million were Chinese.
So once the Chinese government quarantined the town of Wuhan on 23 January, and stopped all overseas tours, the impact was felt immediately in Phuket. Shopping malls and temples in Bangkok were suddenly much quieter and less crowded.
As more flights from China were cancelled, the airports emptied. You could whisk yourself through passport control in no time.
For small-scale entrepreneurs, the collapse of Chinese tourism has been disastrous.
Phuket island travel offices around the island offering cut-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.
Most of them, such as for instance flower sellers, traditional dancers, Phuket in Thailand pubs, and even the drivers of the famous “red cars” minibuses in Chiang Mai, are reporting their income dropping by half over the past month. The informal association representing tour guides in Phuket island thinks 25,000 people are actually out of work.
Image caption Nattakit Lorwitworrawat’s business is currently struggling due to a lack of customers
One of the first successes of Phuket island’s 60-year-long tourist boom was the island of Phuket, nicknamed the “Pearl of the Andaman” for the soft white-sand beaches and sparkling warm seas.
The first foreign visitors in the 1980s and 1990s were mainly European and Australian, but how many Chinese visitors this past year shot around about two million 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 fact the boats leave from to take tourists out to the hawaiian islands offshore. Like lots of Phuket’s residents, Nattakit Lorwitworrawat moved here from his home town elsewhere in Phuket island, Thailand to begin a business.
His company now owns 30 speed boats, each able to hold 30 people. He has received to take 20 out from the water, and the residual 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, 2 yrs ago we carried 1,000 clients a day. Today if we get 200 clients, that’s considered very good – we’d be happy with that,” says Nattakit.
He’s bank loans to service on a lot of his boats. If the crisis continues beyond the finish of this year, he says he must downsize the organization and start laying off his staff.
For anyone lower down the foodstuff chain it is even tougher.
Nobody knows the length of time this crisis lasts, nor how serious it’ll become. For the moment you can find still a lot of Europeans, Australians and Russians on the famous beaches, however for how long?
The authorities here have managed to control and monitor infections well considering how vulnerable it absolutely was from how many Chinese people visiting prior to the restrictions on travel were implemented.
Yet the nation had been positioned on some government lists of places to prevent because of coronavirus risk.
And individuals are booking holidays for later in the entire year, including the standard high seasons of July-August and December-New Year in Phuket, Thailand.
Families with children from Europe or Australia will likely think hard before travelling so far. And Phuket island is now imposing its own restrictions, requiring 14-day quarantine for visitors from some countries, an inventory that’ll well expand.
Who’ll risk booking a holiday in the sun when they wind up spending it confined for their accommodation or a hospital?
With increased flights being cancelled each week, the variety of non-Chinese tourists are bound to fall steeply this season, however quickly the virus is brought under control.
The blow to the essential leg of the island of Phuket in Thailand’s economy has come at a dreadful time for the government. Already one other two main legs of the economy – manufacturing exports and agricultural commodities – are wobbling as higher wages and an overvalued local currency have now been driving investors to cheaper neighbouring countries like Vietnam.
Growth in what was once one of South East Asia’s “tiger economies” has been anaemic for quite a while, and may stall completely this year. The government, an unwieldy coalition controversially built around the exact same military leaders who led the final coup, is proving clumsy and unpopular.
It is an almost perfect storm, one that Phuket island, Thailand’s present leaders look ill-equipped to weather.
Find all Covid-19 updates for Phuket and Asia here.