Visitors take photos of the gold-plated stupa at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in November 2020. Photo: AFP
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 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 ($ 60 million) in revenue, we are going to 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 1 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 around $ 50 billion in tourism revenue in 2021 – a drop of 82% – and is not waiting than around 100,000 tourists in 2021.
“Chiang Mai has always had all types of tourists, so focusing only on spendthrift tourists is not fair – what about us, the businesses that cater to others,” said Rachana, Director of a mid-priced guesthouse in the Old Town that bears a name.
The COVID-19 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 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 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 of high quality.”
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.
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 in 2021, a U.S. resident 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 discourage budget travelers and “put an end” to small businesses on the island, said Nyoman Sukma Arida, tourism professor at the island. ‘Universitas Udayana in Bali.
“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 said.
Almost all countries have introduced border restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, 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 holding their speech,” said Stuart McDonald , founder of the Southeast Asian travel site Couchfish.
“Of course, it makes sense for a country to focus on quality tourists, but that doesn’t necessarily mean spending tourists. High-end tourism has by far the highest environmental impact and is the most prone to damage. economic leaks, ”McDonald said.
“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. “
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.”