” And U.S ? Thai low-budget businesses fear focus on tourists

Thailand has said it wants to attract spending “quality tourists” to help protect the environment, but a business owner says big spenders cause more damage to nature

  • By Rina Chandran / Thomson Reuters Foundation, CHIANG MAI, Thailand

The old town of Chiang Mai in Thailand is a maze of alleys with ancient Buddhist temples juxtaposed with luxury guesthouses and hotels, bars and restaurants and other businesses welcoming the millions of tourists who flock there generally.

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 COVID-19 in the Southeast Asian country that is in largely closed to foreign tourists since March of last year.

From November 1, Thailand is to lift 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 top tourists. range which, according to the authorities, would be more beneficial.

Photo: Bloomberg

“Instead of relying on 40 million tourists to generate 2,000 billion baht [US$60 million] in terms of income, we will focus on quality tourists who can spend more, ”Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow said.

“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 1 million of these visitors by April, without specifying how or who is a quality tourist.

After a record 40 million foreign visitors in 2019 spending 11.4% of its GDP, Thailand lost around $ 50 billion in tourism revenue last year – a drop of 82% – and is not waiting that about 100,000 tourists this year.

However, as the country prepares to open in time for the peak tourist season from November to March, budget hotels and other businesses dependent on backpackers and those who travel on the cheap are worried about being left behind with the new emphasis. on high end tourists.

“Chiang Mai has always had all types of tourists, so just focusing on spendthrift tourists isn’t fair – what about us, the non-caterer companies? Said Rachana, manager of a mid-priced guesthouse in the old town that bears a name.

“All businesses should have the same opportunities when we reopen,” she told reporters.

TOURISM RETHINK

The pandemic has crippled flights and closed businesses around the world, and prompted authorities from Amsterdam to Bali, Indonesia, to promise a more sustainable model that relies less on mass tourism that has damaged the environment and put angry 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 would be more selective, said Indonesian Maritime Affairs and Investment Coordination Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, who supervises 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 6 million visitors in 2019 and depends on tourism for more than half of its income.

However, 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 for offset 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, could discourage budget travelers and “finish off” small businesses on the island, said Nyoman Sukma Arida, tourism professor at the 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.

TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT

Almost all countries have introduced border restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 and the large 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 immunized.

The pandemic-forced break was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to rethink tourism, but Thailand and Indonesia’s approach to reopening “does not suggest they are considering holding their speech,” said Stuart McDonald , founder of the Southeast Asian travel website 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 high 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, ”he said.

In Chiang Mai, the absence of tourists is most noticeable at night, with only a few lighted 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.”

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