CHIANG MAI, October 24 – The old city of Chiang Mai in Thailand is a maze of alleys with ancient Buddhist temples juxtaposed with guesthouses and luxury hotels, bars and restaurants and other businesses welcoming the millions of tourists who usually flock there.
Now dozens of these businesses are closed and bars are mostly silent amid a ban on the sale of alcohol to curb the spread of the coronavirus in this largely Southeast Asian country closed to foreign tourists since March 2020.
Starting November 1, Thailand will roll back the quarantine for fully vaccinated visitors from 10 low-risk countries and gradually more, in a bid to jumpstart its struggling economy – but with a focus on high-end tourists who, according to the authorities, will be more beneficial.
“Instead of relying on 40 million tourists to generate 2,000 billion baht (RM 250 billion) in revenue, we will focus on quality tourists who can spend more,” said Supattanapong Punmeechaow, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Energy.
“It will be good for the environment and the country’s natural resources,” he told a press conference, adding that the country hopes to attract around a million of these visitors by April, without specifying how, nor who is a quality tourist.
After a record 40 million foreign visitors in 2019 spending 11.4% of its gross domestic product, Thailand lost about US $ 50 billion (RM 208 billion) in tourism revenue last year – a 82% drop – and only expect around 100,000 tourists this year.
But as the country prepares to open in time for the peak tourist season from November to March, budget hotels and other backpacker-dependent businesses and those who travel cheap fear being left behind with the new emphasis on backpackers. upscale tourists.
“Chiang Mai has always had all types of tourists, so just focusing on high-spending tourists is not fair – what about us, the businesses that cater to others,” Rachana said. , manager of a mid-priced guesthouse in the Old Town that bears a name.
“All companies should have the same opportunities when we reopen,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The coronavirus pandemic has blocked flights and closed businesses around the world, and has prompted authorities from Amsterdam to Bali to promise a more sustainable model that relies less on mass tourism that has damaged the environment and put in anger local residents whose price is out of their homes.
In Bali, which reopened last week to visitors from around 20 countries with a five-day quarantine, authorities will be more selective, said Luhut Pandjaitan, coordinating minister of maritime affairs and investment, who is overseeing the reopening. .
“We are going to screen tourists,” he told reporters. “We don’t want backpackers to come to keep Bali clean, where the people who come are good.
The island, famous for its sandy beaches and impressive Hindu temples, received more than six million visitors in 2019 and relies on tourism for more than half of its income.
But there has been a growing backlash against some visitors, including the so-called digital nomads – people who mix travel and work and settle anywhere with an internet connection – who have been drawn to countries to compensate. the decline in tourism.
Earlier this year, an American woman was kicked out of Bali after posting tweets that sparked a backlash against her perceived Western privilege and lack of cultural awareness of Indonesia.
Now visa requirements, including a guarantor and heavy health insurance, can put off budget travelers and “end” small businesses on the island, said Nyoman Sukma Arida, senior tourism lecturer. at Universitas Udayana in Bali.
“We must first clarify the meaning of quality tourism and quality tourism: our government’s understanding of quality tourism is simply someone paying a high price,” he said.
“But quality tourists are those who care about preserving the environment, respect local cultures and local communities. That’s the demand now – not just money, ”he added.
Almost all countries have introduced border restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, and wide disparities in vaccine deployment have led to different reopening strategies.
In Thailand, which opened the island of Phuket to tourists from July 1 with some quarantine restrictions, the government’s vaccination program that initially prioritized tourism-dependent provinces has been criticized.
Now the government plans to promote Phuket to “high quality” tourists when the country reopens on November 1, even as a majority of Thais oppose the opening, saying it is too risky with it. only about a third of the population fully vaccinated. .
Coronavirus-forced hiatus was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to rethink tourism, but Thailand and Indonesia’s approach to reopening “does not suggest they are considering following their speech,” said Stuart McDonald , founder of the Southeast Asian travel site Couchfish.
By prioritizing so-called high-end tourists, authorities mistakenly confuse quality with higher spending and limited environmental impact, he said.
“Of course, it makes sense for a country to focus on quality tourists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean big spending tourists. High-end tourism has by far the highest environmental impact and is the most prone to economic leakage, ”said McDonald.
“While budget travelers often exhibit the trickle down effect better, putting money directly into the hands of small and medium-sized businesses owned and operated locally. They also tend to travel much more widely and stay in the country much longer. “- Thomson Reuters Foundation
In Chiang Mai, the absence of tourists is most noticeable at night, with only a few illuminated storefronts and without the hustle and bustle that typically fills the city even in the off-season.
“We don’t know what to expect – if regular tourists will still come,” Rachana said at her guesthouse which advertises reduced rates but was nearly empty.
“It’s good if tourists spend a lot of money. But we would like all types of tourists to come, because we have already suffered a lot. “- Reuters