PHUKET (REUTERS) - The narrow laneways and pastel-coloured shophouses of Phuket Old Town are usually bustling with Chinese tourists during the Chinese New Year holiday, but travel bans and local fears about the coronavirus have largely emptied the streets this year.
Just a handful of tourists, many wearing face masks, strolled through the area during daylight hours this week. In the evening, foot traffic increased a little under the glow of the red lanterns strung across the thoroughfare, but remained far below normal levels.
"The impact is tremendous," 45-year old Ausana Akaradachakul told Reuters as she waited behind the counter for shoppers in her store selling postcards, straw bags, clothing and jewellery.
"Only a few days after the news broke about the virus, the Chinese tourists were visibly few," Ms Akaradachakul said. "I think about 70 per cent of them are gone."
The beach resort of Phuket is Thailand's second-most visited destination after Bangkok and is usually a big draw for visitors from China, who accounted for 11 million visitors last year, particularly around the Chinese New Year holiday.
But China this week imposed restrictions on all overseas tour groups because of the coronavirus that originated in the city of Wuhan and which has infected more than 11,000 people and killed more than 250.
Reduced travel from China alone could result in 50 billion baht (S$2 billion) of lost tourism revenue, the Thai Tourism Ministry estimated.
The spread of the coronavirus beyond China has also affected domestic tourism in Thailand, which has recorded more infections than anywhere but China, with 19 cases. Thailand announced its first case of human-to-human transmission on Friday (Jan 31).
Shopkeepers in Phuket said that had left Thai tourists wary of venturing out to join what should have been an annual festival on Walking Street in the heart of the town.
"There are barely any tourists around here. The people we are seeing now are just the locals," clothes store vendor Parichart Chaengmanee told Reuters as she sat on a stool outside her empty clothing stall, wearing a black face mask. "Even the number of Thai tourists is low."
Shopkeepers are hoping the impact is short-lived, with one sign in a store window reading: "The Thai people pray for China and hope China will recover soon. China and Thailand are family!"