The Thai island of Koh Samet, surrounded by sparkling clear waters and host to an abundance of seafood restaurants, has fully booked hotels for the first time in months.
Ferries packed with Thai nationals, each wearing face masks, arrive on the hour throughout the day. National Park rangers in camouflage overalls and matching facial coverings look on as long queues of travellers wait to have their temperatures scanned.
This small island is now eagerly welcoming domestic visitors following a three-month shutdown which has devastated the Kingdom’s tourism industry.
During those months golden sandy beaches lay empty, resorts shut entirely and nobody with the exception of islanders was allowed on or off the island.
This week Thailand enjoyed a domestic travel bonanza with a replacement long weekend for the Songkran Holiday or Thai New Year, normally held in April, but cancelled by the government while the country got to grips with Covid-19.
The four-day holiday offers the tourism industry some essential financial relief but with the Kingdom’s borders shut to international tourists the outlook remains bleak for workers and business owners here.
“As long as the country is not open, I am very concerned” says Marina Ottiger a 34-year-old hotel manager who has grown up on Koh Samet and took over the business from her parents.
She sits in the dinning area of Samed Villa Resort as waiting staff wearing gloves and face masks circle around the beach-front tables. Without the return of international tourists she says “we are wondering how we are going to cope with our financial situation”.
Like many on the island she is reliant on more than just domestic tourists for her business to stay afloat. Back in April Thailand, a country which last year welcomed 40 million international visitors, shut its borders and for a number of months banned all non-essential, inter-provincial travel for people already in the country.
The package of measures adopted by prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a retired Royal Thai Army general and former junta leader, to tackle the spread of Covid-19 also included night time curfews, a ban on buying alcohol and the closing of schools, entertainment venues and parks around the country.
The curfew which lasted three months saw 40,000 people across the Kingdom arrested for being outside their home at night. The policies along with the public’s widespread use of face masks and social distancing have been effective in keeping transmission rates low.
On Tuesday there have been just 3,295 recorded cases and 58 deaths attributed Covid-19. Thailand has today gone two straight months without a local transmission of the virus.
The cost of these measure have been felt most by workers in the Thailand’s massive tourism industry which according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) brought in an estimated 3.2 trillion Thai Baht (GBP 80 billion) last year.
Thousands of businesses are not expected to make it though this crunch. Local tattoo artist Gai Pradit, who only receives European customers, has had no work during the shut down. Thais generally do not get inked on Koh Samet he says.
His wife’s pay of 34,000 baht a month (GBP 840.00) from her job at a school is all they and their two children have to live on these days. With no foreign tourists on the island and no income “now I only pay” he says. With the family spending now much time at home the cost of electricity alone can be as much as 9,000 Baht (GBP 220.00) a month.
Pradit, 52 looks out from his shop, he sits topless, tanned with two dragons tattooed across his chest. He has worked on Koh Samet for 30 years. The sound of his giggling two-year-old boy running around cuts through the silence of the room.
Home-made tattoo machines, unused in almost five months, sit in a glass cabinet on the wall. He is ambivalent about foreign tourists coming to the island: “I don’t think it is safe for us… even though we need them. We don’t need corona.”
Gai’s mother-in-law was forced to leave their home and live with other relatives on the mainland as the family began to run low on money. In spite of this he is not ready to welcome foreign tourists back if it exposes the island to an outbreak. “I am waiting for a vaccine” he says.
This wary sentiment is shared elsewhere in Thailand. A recent poll by Suan Dusit Rajabhat University showed that 95 per cent of respondents support a ban on foreigners entering the Kingdom to avoid a second wave of Covid-19 infections.
In a July UN report on Covid-19′s effect on global tourism Thailand is projected to lose 9 per cent of its GDP under the study’s most optimistic model. This amounts to a loss of GBP 37 billion spread across the entire tourism supply chain, affecting the incomes of millions of workers in the country.
Aside from hotel and restaurant workers on the islands, there are the taxi drivers in Bangkok, diving instructors in Koh Tao and sex workers in Pattaya. The industry’s often forgotten ancillary workers have been devastated by the sudden drop in international tourism.
According to the UN report Thailand will be country worst-affected by the tourism downturn in the word, second only to Jamaica. Given the high share of female employment and large proportion of female entrepreneurs in the industry, women are expected to bear the brunt of these losses.
During Koh Samet’s tourism shut down hotel manager Marina Ottiger gave some of her staff work renovating new bungalows she acquired from a neighbour unable to financially cope with the sudden drop in tourists.
Many of the island’s other tourism staff, who have gone back to their villages in the mainland’s northern Issan province or neighbouring Cambodia are now stuck with no job to return to. Across Koh Samet’s tourism businesses “many got laid off” says Ms Ottiger.
In March when prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced the state of emergency, workers whose jobs were affected were promised three monthly payments of 5,000 baht (GBP 124.00) in financial assistance. However millions of migrant and informal workers, including thousands of sex workers, are thought to have been left out or found to be ineligible during the registration process.
In May people were forced to queue outside the Department of Public Relations in Bangkok during the hottest period of the year to file complaints for not receiving their financial aid package. Despite the economic impact across the country, there are mixed feelings for those who live on islands like Koh Samet.
Yut, is a 62-year-old local artist and beach vendor who makes jewellery from shells which he sells to beachgoers for around 100 baht (GBP 2.50). He has spent his life on the island and watched it change dramatically. “There were too many tourists here the beach was full but then when Covid came there was just nothing to do”.
He shrugs and proudly displays a scan of a photograph depicting the main beach 40 years ago. A tiny silhouetted figure is framed with her back to the camera as palm trees arch over an infinite stretch of impossibly white sand. The clear upside to the strict Covid-19 measures for island life here in Thailand is some respite from the environmental damage caused by the flow of mass tourism.
With almost no noisy speed boats pulling in and out along the shore and beaches relieved of the heavy footfall of tourists, nature is springing back to life. Ms Ottiger says: “Horn billed birds came out, we also had lots of pythons we have big snakes here and lots of fish and I even saw star fish I have not seen before. The coral reef became much more beautiful and the quality of water became much more clearer than before”.
When Thailand’s borders do open, one of the TAT’s strategies for recovery is to promote high-end travel experiences for fewer but wealthier visitors. In theory this can balance the country’s economic needs while minimising the increasing environmental damage from tourism.
This would pivot the country away from the large Chinese tour groups and boozy Western backpackers which descend on Thailand in growing numbers each year. Ottiger is concerned about the impact this approach would have on businesses which have operated for years under a different model and do not have the facilities and infrastructure to offer luxury travel arrangements.
“This island will be very much in trouble,” Ottiger says. She has 60 members of staff who rely on her for income. Currently the hotel is down to just 30 per cent occupancy on weekends down from 85 per cent last year.
At this rate, how long can she last with current savings before the business fails? “Until the end of the year”.