A coronavirus-inspired Chinese travel ban would hurt Thailand’s working class

Theerapol Saetung doesn’t really sleep. He closes his food stall at the Patpong night market around midnight before rushing to the Klongtoey fresh market to get the next day’s supplies. Once he gets home, he still has to prepare the next day’s ingredients and refrigerate the various meats and seafood before he allows himself any sleep. It’s usually 4 am before he hits the sack and even then, he only has a few hours of sleep before he’s sending his kids to school by motorbike the next morning.

Usually, he’s exhausted, and sleep comes easily. For the past several weeks, however, he’s had trouble sleeping.

Even when business is good, Theerapol’s margins are slim. Now, with the coronavirus keeping away Chinese tourists, he is having trouble breaking even.

“When I was younger, the people that come to [the night market] were all farang. But that has changed, all my customers are Chinese now,” he said.

A Chinese outbreak, a global concern

The outbreak of the coronavirus has, as of February 18, claimed 1,873 lives, with most fatalities occurring in China.

The disease, which originated from China’s Hubei province, has infected over 70,000 people in the mainland, prompting Beijing to quarantine entire cities and implement travel bans both internally and externally.

Over 60 countries around the world have denied entry or quarantined Chinese tourists upon arrival including Australia, the United States and members of the European Union.

Thailand has gone the opposite way.

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul and Minister of Tourism Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn have both publicly stated that Chinese tourists would continue to be welcomed because in the long run it would paint Thailand in a good light to Beijing.

Both have been criticized by Thai citizens on social media for putting profit above the country’s wellbeing, with netizens and media commentators calling for a travel ban to visitors from China regardless of any economic outcome.

Economic value

But one cannot underestimate the impact of Chinese tourists on Thailand’s economy. Chinese tourists make up the largest number of foreign visitors to Thailand.

Not only do Chinese tourists arrive in larger numbers than any other group, they also spend more.

“On average, around 800,000 Chinese tourists come to visit Thailand each month and each of them would spend around 50,000 baht per trip,” Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand told Thai Enquirer.

Several organizations including the University of Thai Chamber of Commerce, the National Economic and Social Development Council, the Bank of Thailand, and the Ministry of Finance have cut Thailand’s GDP growth forecast by almost one per cent and citing the lack of incoming Chinese tourists as a major reason.

And while Yuthasak said that the government and the Tourism Authority were trying to find alternative travelers to the Chinese to make up the numbers. It is unlikely that any one group or even several groups could make up the 10 million Chinese tourists that visit Thailand every year.

Local impact

However, as the coronavirus tolls continue to mount and worldwide concern grows, the calls for a travel ban from China continue from opposition politicians and on social media. Yet instituting a travel ban on Chinese tourists would not only affect major blue-chip industries like hotels, airlines, travel agencies and luxury retailers, as the government has pointed out, but working-class Thais as well.

Many people working in small businesses or the daily service sector say they are willing to risk exposure to the coronavirus if the Chinese were to return, so vital has Chinese tourism become to the sector.

Lek, a Tuk Tuk driver stationed around tourist areas in the inner city, have little where else to turn without Chinese tourists. Thais rarely take Tuk Tuks.

“I have been driving around [Erawan and Rajprasong] since 2003 and this is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “Look around, you do not see anybody.”

“I am really not scared of the virus at all,’ Lek said. “I have to take care of my rent and expenses, and this isn’t enough. It’s been difficult.

The government has, for its part, said that it would introduce stimulus packages to help the businesses most affected by the coronavirus. But people like Lek and Theerapol are unlikely to see the benefits of any stimulus money.

According to Deputy Prime Minister Somkid, the stimulus and aid measures will likely take shape in the form of tax breaks and increased holidays, geared towards increasing spending in local businesses.

It is unlikely that Tuk Tuk drivers, tour guides, and food stalls in foreign tourist areas will ever see the benefit from such measures. Yet even as working-class Thais struggle to make ends meet, the calls for a travel ban persists.

“I understand why [the online people] want to stop the Chinese people from entering the country, everyone is afraid of getting sick,” Theerapol said. “But if they do that then people like myself, my friends, everyone here at the market will lose their jobs.”

“I am not afraid of the coronavirus; I am afraid of not being able to feed my children.”

(Additional Reporting and cover photo by Pear Maneechote)


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