By now we’re all used to the madness surrounding the Wuhan Coronavirus in Europe and North America. Surprisingly enough, Thailand is in the throes of its own version of the Coronamadness, according to this report from H. Numan.
Monkey tricks in Thailand
by H. Numan
How’s Thailand doing during the Chinese Virus Crisis? Not very good. Pretty bad, actually. Yes, medically speaking, Thailand is doing great. Outstanding is a better word. The number of victims is very low. Thailand enforced one of the strictest medical regimes in the world. That saved countless lives. Fewer than 3,000 people were infected and fewer than 60 people have died. But at what cost?
The number of deaths is actually negative. Sounds odd, right? Well, that’s because of Songkran, or Thai New Year. During the virus crisis the government enforced the state of emergency, including a curfew and a total alcohol ban. You could only buy soda water in the supermarkets. Beer and stronger drinkies were forbidden. I have no idea why Thailand had to go teetotal. Probably because the Thai elite doesn’t like (other) people to drink. Same for a curfew from 10pm until 4am. Makes the streets safer, of course. I doubt it stopped any spread of the virus. But that’s also something the Thai elite really likes.
Songkran is our New Year festival from 12-16 April. It is always celebrated with lots and lots of water. And booze. The extra number of deaths during the ‘seven deadly days’ is usually well over 400, with traffic victims in the thousands. Not this year, because of the alcohol ban and the ban on any social activity. That means that the Thai government saved at least 340 lives. This year the number of extra deaths due to Songkran was zero.
The price the Thai people have to pay for remaining relatively unharmed is steep. Thailand is a tourist nation. About one third of GNP comes from tourism. Thailand has closed its borders completely, so foreign tourism is zero. There you go. We just lost one third of our national income! Nothing to worry about. Local tourism will make up for it, so claims the government. No idea where they picked those numbers from; let’s be polite and say out of a hat.
Perhaps you remember we had elections last year. As soon as the (then) prime minister general Prayuth Chan-o-Cha announced he was considering candidacy, I knew he would become the next prime minister. If Prayuth wasn’t dead certain he’d become PM again, he wouldn’t bother to run for it. So we had elections, and all his generals with whom he committed the 2014 coup were re-elected. With a few new parties added to spice things up. The only big difference is that prime minister Prayuth no longer is a(n active) general. He’s a retired general now. So are most of his ministers. Another thing to show you nothing has changed: in the new constitution (the 25th to be exact) a number of generals are automatically appointed into parliament. They can veto everything they want. None of the other parliamentarians can, just them. This system makes any unwanted changes impossible. Except in the tried old way: a military coup is always an option in Thailand… generals replacing generals. Anything else is now impossible. In the present Thai democracy one can only vote for parties that are approved by and follow policy set by generals.
The government has big plans to
kill revive tourism. They want to revamp tourism entirely, and focus on rich tourists. We don’t need poor yokels! Only the rich and the best are good enough for Thailand. At this moment, if you own a private plane you don’t have to worry about closed borders or compulsory 14 days of state quarantine. You can fly to Thailand and enjoy your holiday. How many of you own a private plane? Not a lot, I guess. The number of readers owning a plane with trans oceanic range is quite a bit lower. Probably close to nil. Those are the tourists Thailand wants to focus on.
Thailand is not the first country to look at cloud cuckoo land for brilliant ideas. Greece and Spain tried it in the past. They weren’t too happy being the f**k destinations for Europe. Not that many people go to Ibiza or Mykonos to sniff culture. Both countries spent a lot of money to turn that around. In. Vain. Wasted. Money. They could have spent it on prophylactics with better results. Of course Greece, Spain and Thailand as well have lots of culture to offer.
The problem is that not that many tourists want an exclusively cultural tour. In the business we even have a name for it. We call them ABC tours. Another Blasted Cathedral, Another Bourgeois Capital or Another Bloody Church tour. Pick the one you like. As beautiful as Thai temples are: if you have seen one, you have seen them all. At least, that is how 99% of all tourists perceive it. The 1% who do appreciate it are art students or graduates in Southeast Asian history. I’ve been working for 20 years in the tourism business, so I have a rough idea what I’m talking about.
Another problem with the ‘we now focus on the rich’ is that the Dumbos who blabber that have no idea what they are talking about. My agency specialized in cruises. You have no idea how much work it is to arrange a tour for a really upper class family. What the government thinks is that hotels will upgrade everything themselves. So the government doesn’t have to spend a penny on it. Mission achieved at no cost! Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.
Yes, if you go to the better 4- and 5-star Thai hotels, they can out-compete any hotel worldwide. Even in handicapped facilities — which Thailand doesn’t have much anywhere else. But you won’t stay in that 5-star resort. You want to see Thailand, so you have to step outside. On a sidewalk that is usually less than a meter wide and always at least 40 cm high. With complimentary potholes and low-hanging electricity cables to make life more interesting. Enjoy 50 stenches of brown coming from the sewers. You can’t enjoy Thai street food anymore, because the government has sanitized that. Nor can you buy fake souvenirs, because the government cracked down on that too. Or buy anything on the streets, because the Thai government doesn’t like that either and removed it. The sellers were offered ‘alternative venues’ (= in the middle of nowhere).
Before the Chinese virus crisis began, the government had already cleaned out Bangkok. What they are doing now is administering the coup de grâce. All to woo the rich tourists who apparently want that. What I see is a government who finally got an opportunity to do what they themselves want very much. Hypocritical as it is. The Thai elites don’t like drinking. Other people drinking, that is. So we had a three-month ban on alcohol. The Thai elites don’t like nightlife. So Pattaya must be closed and sanitized. For wholesome family entertainment. The Thai elites of course enjoy nightlife, but discreet. I can show you hotels, very large hotels even, that aren’t hotels at all. Hotels rarely charge by the hour. These do. Or high-class karaoke bars that cater mainly to something other than singing a song. And so on, and so on. What will the result be? Something like a gated retirement complex in Florida. Very safe, very humid. And utterly boring.
Thai tourism organizations are up in arms to defend their livelihood. So far, with zero results. Lowering the interest on business loans by a percentage point isn’t going to help if you have no business at all. They expect that by the end of the year 60% of all Thai hotels will be permanently closed. I think… they are too optimistic!
Yesterday I did some shopping on a street I haven’t on been since the virus crisis began. Half the shops on the street were boarded up, with signs for rent or for sale. That wasn’t a high-class street, mind you. An ordinary street where ordinary people shop. Half the shops were gone.
Thailand was an attractive destination, with relatively low prices. No longer, because the baht is the strongest currency in the world currently. That’s very nice if you are in the elite, but not much fun for everyone else. A simple meal with a soda used to be Bt. 25 when I arrived in Thailand. Twenty years later, you’re lucky if you can find that meal for Bt. 75. But… the baht itself has more than doubled in value. For tourists that meal costs now Bt. 160 in their own currency. That’s about $6 for a very cheap meal. That’s quite a bit for a plate of fried rice with a coke. Do mind that this goes for everything. Taxis, buses, the Skytrain, hotels, attractions. It’s not as expensive as Europe or America, but getting there.
Businesses must invest? With what? Most hotels have lost at least half a year’s worth of business, and many will lose a full year. They are running on fumes already. The end of the lockdown is not in sight as yet. Even if — doubtful — the situation is back to normal in December, many won’t be there to see it. What is not in doubt is that worldwide travel will be vastly different, in a negative way. For a long time to come wearing masks during the flight will be compulsory. Twelve hours wearing a mask is nothing to sneeze at. Something you do because you can’t avoid it. Not something you want to do on your vacation. Holidaymakers will probably switch to destinations where that can be avoided.
As you can see, a pretty bleak outlook. We’re in a downwards spiral. The tourism business gone sour hurts all other businesses. Those hotels have staff they had to lay off. Suppliers who are out of business. Those people are no longer looking for a new house. Which hurts the real estate market. And so on. Myself, I build websites for hotels, guesthouses and diving schools. I got plenty of requests, but only from the electricity company to pay the bill. In six months, not a single customer. With 60% of all hotels going bust, not much prospect for better times.
To conclude, I’d like to remind you that the Great Economic Depression of the ’30s began in 1929. The peak of that crisis was during the ’30s. It didn’t end with WW2, but in the ’60s. World War Two added a whole lot of new problems to the equation. For example, trained people went into the army. They were replaced with untrained staff. After the war, those previously trained people (those who survived) couldn’t simply be rehired. They lost their expertise for a good deal and were already replaced by the newcomers. At the same time the war industry had to switch back to civilian production.
I know, not a nice story. Without a happy ending. Because it’s going to get worse. Not just in Thailand.
— H. Numan