Thai travel industry faces 'nail in coffin' after new Covid-19 outbreak

Thailand discovered a record cluster of infections in Samut Sakhon province last week. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - As Phuket and other Thai tourist destinations prepare for a slight bump in business from the countdown to 2021, a new virus outbreak among seafood factory workers near Bangkok couldn't come at a worse time.

Thailand discovered a record cluster of infections in Samut Sakhon province last week, prompting a 14-day lockdown of the industrial district. The government is mulling whether curbs need to be expanded to other locales.

Another nationwide lockdown or restrictions on domestic travel could be the "nail in the coffin" for many tourism-related companies, according to Phuket Hotel Association President Anthony Lark.

"Everyone's losing money and just trying to break even," Lark said by phone Monday (Dec 21).

"If the government can't control the virus, and any domestic air travel or inter-provincial travel restrictions are introduced, then you will absolutely see hotel, restaurant and boat owners mothball their businesses."

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Monday that he will take about a week to assess whether more stringent curbs are needed.

Mr Prayut on Tuesday blamed the spike in coronavirus cases on illegal migration, mostly among workers from Myanmar at the seafood market.

He said he might this week announce new health regulations ahead of new year celebrations and attributed the latest outbreak to networks smuggling people into Thailand, which has so far had among the world's lowest coronavirus caseloads.

"This latest flare-up of infections in Samut Sakhon is primarily due to such illegal immigrants and they have brought much grief to the country," he said in a statement, parts of which he read in a televised address.

Mr Prayut said he would meet his Covid-19 task force this week and discuss "additional regulations that may be appropriate for the evolving situation," without elaborating.

News of a widespread outbreak in the seafood market, which took Thailand's total infections to 5,289 on Monday, came just a day after the government announced plans to ease some restrictions on tourists from 56 countries, including the US, Japan and Singapore.

Thailand is betting on a revival in tourism to help it exit a recession, though the central bank forecasts it may take two years for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy to return to pre-pandemic growth levels. Foreign tourist arrivals generated more than US$60 billion (S$79.6 billion) in revenue from about 40 million visitors in 2019.

While the international market has been virtually dormant for months, domestic travellers have kept many places afloat, including in Phuket, where businesses were counting on a bump during the year-end holidays.

Travellers from the Thai capital account for 99 per cent of Phuket's tourists since the nation closed its borders late March, according to Lark.

Before the pandemic, foreign tourists comprised two-thirds of the island province's visitors but contributed about 90 per cent of Phuket's tourism revenue.

"Bangkok weekend warriors have been propping up all supporting businesses," Lark said, noting that some hotel occupancy rates have hit 80 per cent at times.

But new restrictions "would be the nail in the coffin for so many businesses who were already booked and waiting for tourists from Bangkok."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.