On November 1st, 2021, the Thai government reopened its borders to international tourists in the hopes that it could revive the economy. Like many other countries, Thailand was heavily shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic as it stopped the country’s primary source of income: international tourism. Many Thai workers, such as hotel staff, retailers, and tour operators, had to rely on their savings and innovate to survive.
The government’s decision to reopen the borders may put the country at risk in regard to the spread of COVID-19 and its variants. As Tatiya, a worker in the tourism industry, shares in an interview with Spheres of Influence, the Thai government is “opening the country because the economy is plummeting down. We are not ready, but we need to open, so we’ll open. Whereas other countries will wait to have a certain threshold of vaccinated people.”
Even before the pandemic, the reliance on the tourism sector in Thailand came with its own problems. Maybe COVID-19 can give the Thai government the opportunity to use tourism and its income to industrialize and develop the country, in an effort to transform tourism into a positive drive for national economic development.
COVID-19: the Little Grain of Sand that Stalled a Very Lucrative Industry
Thailand is famously known for its beautiful beaches, excellent food, and active nightlife. In 2019, Bangkok ranked the number one destination for global travelers for the fourth year in a row. International tourism contributed $60 billion in revenue. The industry generates one-fifth of the total Thai GDP. However, since the global economic impact of the pandemic, the Thai tourism sector may not recover until 2026, massively affecting the government’s annual budget. In December 2020, tourists arrivals in Thailand were down by 99.8% compared to the year prior.
As a matter of fact, Thailand is one of the most heavily affected countries by COVID-19 in its region. Since January 2020, it has had more than 2 million confirmed COVID-19 cases. In Southeast Asia, it is the 4th highest country with the most reported cases of the virus per million, after Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei.
Tatiya, manager of housing properties and a cooking teacher for tourists, explains how “at the beginning, Thailand was doing really well. But at the end of 2020, cases suddenly went up! By May 2021, we were on our 4th or 5th wave. Hospitals were full, and people were dying at home or on the street. It was really bad.” Since then, Thailand’s vaccination campaign has advanced well, with 56% of citizens now vaccinated. However, most vaccinated people received immunizations from the Sinovac or a combination of Sinovac and Western vaccines, such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer BioNTech. Both the Sinovac alone or a combination of it with other vaccines have yet to be proven effective scientifically.
In November 2021, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha announced the reopening of borders for international tourists from 46 defined countries. Yet, COVID-19 is far from being controlled in Thailand—the virus and its variants continue to be rampant despite the vaccination campaign.
So, why is the government taking the risk of opening up?
Tourism represents 20% of the national income. And when tourists stopped visiting Thailand, Thai workers in the industry faced a sudden halt of income in March 2020. Hundreds of thousands of workers had to find alternative employment to survive the many difficult months that followed.
In 2018, Jam and Paul launched bike tours in Bangkok for international tourists to share their passion for biking and the city they live in. They described how “after March, everything was closed, everything got canceled. We had a month of just people canceling.” It was a similar experience for Buay, who has run a small enterprise of tour guides since 2004: “For the last two years, we had to deal with the pandemic. During the lockdown, we had to pay for our workers, paying for six-months leaves. Four people used to work in the office. Then, we had to let everyone go.” Bird, a tour guide based in Chiang Mai, also shares that “we had to survive almost all the time with all my saving money.”
As of December 2021, although borders have opened, international travel remains restricted in Thailand. “To go to a national park, for example, you must register on an app called QueQ before reaching it. Then you have to show your passport and your full vaccination pass. After that, you can enjoy the activity,” explains Bird. The sector is reopening very slowly to ensure the health and safety of both workers and tourists. Other safety precautions include wearing masks, cleaning thoroughly, and encouraging vaccinations in order to enjoy certain activities.
It is far from the end of difficulties for Thai people depending on tourism. “It would really help me if guests came in, but I don’t know how long we will be able to stay open. Everything is really up in the air with the government. It is hard to anticipate,” says Tatiya. And Buay agreed: “Governmental regulations are changing every day. It is still a very difficult time for tourist business.”
Yet, was tourism such a blessing for Thailand pre-pandemic? Another common reason for international visitors was Thailand’s sex tourism industry—a less talked about tourist attraction.
The Dark Side of Tourism in Thailand
Tourism in Thailand is infamous for directly contributing to so-called dark industries, namely prostitution, child sexual exploitation, and drug trafficking. According to various reports, there are more than 200,000 sex workers in Thailand. But advocacy groups argue the reported numbers are doubled, if not more because researchers did not account for migrant sex workers from neighboring countries. Moreover, even though the Thai government refuses to legalize sex work as an effort to “discourage it,” the industry offers an annual contribution of $8 billion to the national economy.
Furthermore, human trafficking is a massive problem in Thailand. In 2018, 610,000 people were believed to be living in conditions of modern slavery in the country. Globally, more than 30% of human trafficking victims are victims of sexual exploitation, and most are underage girls from Thailand and Laos. Without a doubt, the vast majority of sex workers and victims of human trafficking are migrants and vulnerable populations.
In addition to cheap sex services, Thailand offers easy access to drug consumption. 95% of the world’s production of opium comes from Afghanistan and Myanmar, which share a border with Thailand. Colloquially known as the “Golden Triangle,” Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos are hubs for drug trafficking. In fact, drug trafficking increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, and alternative drugs such as methamphetamine production rose. In 2020, Thailand faced the highest national number of seizures due to smuggled methamphetamine. Drug trafficking also brings a generous financial contribution to the table. In the same year, it generated more than $71 billion.
Most international tourists our interviewees catered to were North Americans, followed closely by Europeans. They also welcomed some Australians and Chinese from Singapore or Hong Kong. In this sense, international tourism has often been criticized for perpetuating colonial structures. It is important to acknowledge that Thailand was never colonized, but there are still power inequalities between Western tourists and local peoples. These power asymmetries come from different levels of income, from the economic and political influence of one’s country over the other’s, from the financial dependence of local people on the ‘goodwill’ of tourists. The horrifying consequences of human and drug trafficking are but symptoms of that reality.
Western tourists also perpetuate destructive dynamics in seemingly more menial but still harmful ways such as infantilizing locals, simplifying cultural differences, and taking invasive photos of local lifestyles. A journalist from The Guardian breaks down words and expressions which seem harmless but have a ‘baggage’ to take into account. Behind sayings such as “they are so beautiful” or “this is so exotic” hides destructive and dehumanizing discourses relating back to colonialism. “They are so beautiful” talks about an indistinguishable mass of people and doesn’t take into account each person, with their individual realities, needs, and desires. Exotic can be a synonym of ‘backward’ or ‘different from us,’ and in that sense, less human.
Nevertheless, international tourism is an essential source of income for many Thai people. It has the potential to encourage intercultural awareness and enable meaningful encounters between Thai and international visitors. This begs the contrasting question to an earlier problem we faced, is tourism so bad after all?
Transforming Tourism as a Positive Development Drive for Thailand
International tourism has allowed many Thai people to assert their own agency and to share their passions with others. Since COVID-19 suddenly stopped their primary source of income, the pandemic forced those in the tourism industry to reinvent their activities. During a lockdown, Bird and Buay offered online tours of their respective cities, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Meanwhile, Tatiya continued to provide Thai cooking classes via video call. Tatiya says that “at first, I wasn’t sure people would want to pay to cook with someone online when you can go on YouTube and find all the cooking tutorials you want. But even if it is online, it is still an experience. You feel the connection, the special feeling of sharing something with the participants. It was a lot of fun.”
The pandemic also allowed local tourism to grow and enabled Thai people to rediscover their own country. Every Sunday for the past couple of months, Jam and Paul have offered free biking tours around Bangkok for Thai people. “We always loved biking. It is a part of our life. It started with a few friends, then more and more people started to contact us. Sometimes, we had 70 people for Sunday tours.” In addition, some people would financially contribute to the rental price of the bike to support the biking couple.
Furthermore, things were not all gold for Thailand before the pandemic. The country already suffered from the “middle-income trap.” This trap can be defined as the failure to transform an economy into a high-income one. Thailand’s economic growth has been plateauing for the past few years. According to World Bank data, its poverty rate has started rising again since 2015.
In fact, tourism does not encourage economic development on the national level. While being a source of income for Thai people, it does not necessarily promote “high-skill” jobs. Tour attractions and operations, restaurants, and hotels do not bring about structural changes in the economy. Yet national development is crucial to ensure decent living conditions for Thai people and enable access to basic goods and services, such as education. The Thai government must facilitate the development of other key sectors. Income from tourism should be reinvested to enable further national economic development, centered on the needs of Thai people. It is up to them and the government to continue transforming the tourism industry in Thailand to really become a positive drive for national economic development.