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Beach-ness as usual? Rebuilding the Thai tourism industry on inequality

  • Opinion

By Sophie Zwick, BA Politics and International Relations

As vaccine rollouts begin in earnest all over the world, Thai authorities and hotel chains have called for quarantine exemptions for vaccinated travellers. However, the devastating consequences of the shuttered tourist industry have been most painfully felt among its most vulnerable workers and a return to business as usual cannot occur. 

While lockdown has forced us to stay indoors reminiscing about our last big trip abroad, tourism-dependent economies such as Thailand have been hit hard by the international border closures.

In Thailand, the Covid-19 virus appears to have been widely controlled as the government has reported a total of 13,000 cases and just 71 deaths up to January 2021. However, the economic consequences of travel restrictions and lockdowns have significantly impacted the livelihoods of over 100 million workers in the industry. Thailand’s tourism industry accounts for 21% of its national GDP, as estimated by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). The Financial Times has reported 1 in 3 Thai businesses closed due to the pandemic. 

In light of this, Thailand implemented a long stay visa scheme last October which included a mandatory 2 week quarantine upon arrival. This did not yield the anticipated influx of foreign tourists, who normally make up 70% of the industry revenue. As William Heinecke, chairman of Thailand’s largest listed hotel and hospitality group, stated: ‘There are tremendous numbers of people who won’t come to Thailand, or won’t come to any country that has a quarantine, because it takes too much time.’

Thai hotel operators are now calling for an exemption from the quarantine measures for vaccinated tourists with the hope that this will result in the revival of the industry. However, these measures ignore the deepening inequalities the pandemic has caused and offer no protection to the many vulnerable workers who rely on tourism. 

‘I am done with the hotel industry, I worked there for 18 years and now I have nothing,’ says 33 year old Preeyawat Mahachai. Tourism is the second largest industry in Thailand, and employs 9% of Thailand’s workforce. Neighbouring tourist destinations such as Cambodia and Vietnam employ similarly high percentages of their populations, 6.7% and 6.9%. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) predicts an increase in working poverty in the region. 

Mahachai worked as an Executive Manager of Housekeeping at a Phuket resort when tourists stopped booking trips. He explains, ‘When Covid came the General Manager held a meeting in every department. We brainstormed solutions and they decided to cut the manpower by half.’ In charge of 40 employees, Mahachai was instructed to fire ten team members, ‘I didn’t choose to cut them but I fired myself, my salary amounted to the salary of 10 of my staff.’

‘It is not fair, every person has their responsibility, I am single, I don’t have children or a partner. I worked for 18 years, I have money in the bank. If I leave my team can still work, I don’t want to see them lose their jobs.’

The resort managed three more months after the restructuring before letting go of a further 150 employees. Meanwhile Mahachai lived off his savings. Without employment and income he explains: ‘My life is like a car with no gasoline to put in, everything stopped for me.’

Informal employees, often young, female and uneducated workers, have suffered the worst effects of the crisis. In Southeast Asia, 3 in 4 people in the tourism industry are employed on an informal level. The ILO is rightly calling for better protection, labour standards and social protection systems in the industry. 

Mahachai supports these proposals; his life is now unrecognisable to the one he was living a year ago. Having spent years working his way up from Florist to Manager in his resort, the young man is now back with his family in northeastern Thailand. ‘Because of Covid I was able to come back and we no have big money, but we big happy,’ he says as he shows me images of homemade sweets he now sells with his mother. 

In a recent report by the UN World Tourism Organisation, just 41% of experts estimate a return to pre-pandemic foreign travel by 2024. The assessment names consumer confidence as key to a revival of the industry. Hotels, governments and Western travellers may be able to wait patiently for the return of restriction-free travel to sunny vacations, but how much longer can the vulnerable employees of the industry continue to carry the burden of a recovering tourist trade? 

Mahachai tells me that he has no interest in going back: ‘I want to find another career, something I have never done before. Something challenging, to go to another country to learn about another country.’

Photo caption: Preeyawat Mahachai was employed in the tourism industry for 18 years. The pandemic has forced him to return home to sell homemade sweets. (Credit: Mahachai)

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