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Thai tourism jobs lose shine for some even amid rebound

But analysts expect this to change if and when tourism returns to pre-Covid-19 levels

Thailand's tourism sector is on the mend, with plans to allow quarantine-free travel for more vaccinated tourists from next month.

But while many see the news as light at the end of the tunnel for the battered sector, analysts expect a long runway for the revival of tourism. And for some, the once-robust industry, which was nicknamed Teflon Thailand, has lost its steam.

"I can't imagine going back to work in tourism. Imagine working in a sector that is unstable and is so sensitive to the next Covid-19 wave or new variant," said Mr Soranan Natejan, 28, a former customer relations executive at a tour agency.

He left the agency early last year after four years, and soon found a job as a sales executive at a software solutions company, where he is paid twice his previous salary.

"I don't think the industry will be the same again," said Mr Soranan, adding that the initial perceptions he had of the tourism industry as a lucrative and secure career path have been shattered.

The prolonged travel curbs have caused many like him to exit the sector, which hired more than seven million people before Covid-19 hit.

The Tourism Council of Thailand estimates that more than two million tourism workers have lost their jobs, while 36 per cent of tourism businesses have shut temporarily and 4 per cent permanently.

Most of the businesses that are still in operation have also cut their manpower by half, the Association of Thai Travel Agents' head of public relations Pilomrat Isvarphornchai told The Sunday Times. "A lot of the workforce has left the market, and a lot is being done now to recruit them back," she said.

Tour agency owner Tanawut Chumnankhao, 36, has put his Phuket-based business on hold for nearly two years. Even when a pilot scheme in July saw the island reopen to vaccinated travellers, he chose to remain shut.

"I didn't think that small businesses like mine would benefit, because the big hotels and companies are the ones with the manpower and resources," he said.

Neither is he in a hurry to reopen come Nov 1, when Thailand plans to allow more vaccinated visitors from selected countries to enter without undergoing quarantine.

"I want to observe the situation first and maybe open a few months after," said Mr Tanawut, who is trying to rehire some of his former employees.

Analysts say that while the industry might not be attractive to job seekers right now, this will change if and when tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Said Ms Pilomrat: "There is the fear that the industry will lose its appeal, but Thailand is a destination with a lot to offer. We just have to build sector resilience."

She believes that the expected slow recovery of the industry will allow manpower to return gradually in the next few years.

Maybank Kim Eng analyst Yuwanee Prommaporn believes that a number of those who have left remain unemployed mainly because their skills are not suited for other industries.

The pandemic has also cast a spotlight on Thailand's heavy dependence on international tourism, and industry experts hope that more effort will be made to diversify its target audience and markets.

"The structure of Thai tourism has leaned towards the international market for too long, and this has proved difficult to change," Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told the Bangkok Post in May.

Dr Kirida Bhaopichitr, director of the Economic Intelligence Service at the Thailand Development Research Institute, said: "I don't think the face of Thai tourism will change dramatically, but the offerings will adapt, for example, to have more high-value tourism."

According to Ms Pilomrat, this could mean smaller or private tour groups instead of large tours, and a focus on luxury experiences that will attract tourists with higher spending power.

She said there are plans to create more tourist destinations out of lesser-known secondary cities - such as Buriram, the home town of K-pop group Blackpink's Lalisa "Lisa" Manoban - and to target the domestic travel market.

While industry players are generally optimistic about the plan to open up borders, some wonder how successful the country will be in attracting foreign tourists.

In 2019, Thailand saw more than 39 million foreign tourists and the sector brought in nearly one-fifth of the nation's income.

Various analysts forecast about 300,000 foreign arrivals in Thailand this year, and say it will take at least three years for the numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The higher costs of travel - due to mandatory Covid-19 tests, protocols and documentation - as well as quarantine requirements for some travellers when they return to their country of origin could be deterrents, said Ms Pilomrat.

She also noted that boosting Thailand's vaccination rate could help the country negotiate possible travel lanes with other nations.

While the capital Bangkok has fully vaccinated more than 65 per cent of its population, only about 35 per cent nationwide have received both jabs.

Other provinces scheduled to reopen include Chiang Mai, where about 60 per cent have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Mr Solahutdin Mahatchakun, 29, who was laid off from his job at the reservations department of a tour agency in June last year, wants to return to the tourism sector in the next one to two years.

"I still enjoy the hospitality industry, and it has many perks, including travel discounts, free hotel stays and meeting people from all over the world," said Mr Solahutdin, who studied hospitality in university.

He now works as a customer service officer at a telecommunications company.

While his current pay is a little higher than what he received when he was working in the tourism sector, Mr Solahutdin said: "It is boring, but I have no choice as I'm already lucky enough to have a job."

And while the tourism industry might remain volatile for now, as consumer behaviour and travel regulations worldwide continue to evolve, Ms Yuwanee is optimistic.

"The Thai people are known for their hospitality and this is a key strength... In the long term, the country should still be able to remain attractive," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 17, 2021, with the headline 'Thai tourism jobs lose shine for some even amid rebound'. Subscribe