CHIANG RAI, 10 June 2020: In just a couple more days we will pass the five-month milestone counting from 13 January when the first Covid-19 case outside of China was confirmed in Thailand.
Today, Covid-19 cases surpassed the 7 million mark with more than 400,000 fatalities.
Tour operators in Southeast Asia are panicking for a good reason. They are running out of cash and losing all of their tourists for five months and more has gone far beyond the worst-case scenario.
They have spent those months without generating revenue, serving their clients or even building business for the future. Literally, like anyone else linked to tourism, the last five months turned into a long and unhealthy hibernation. The only sign of life in the accounts department was the software bleep that indicated how many dollars exited to pay bills, support staff, and keep hopes alive. But the optimism is wearing thin now, and the empty words of marketing gurus who thought we would be over the peak by now provide no solace or inspiration.
Hundreds of tour operators, all with bases in Thailand, have been copied on a tour operator’s email this week that desperately called on the Tourism Authority of Thailand and associations such as the Association of Thai Travel Agents to act fast or watch their membership implode. Who can afford to renew their industry association dues in 2021?
The emails hit the panic button demanding that the associations they trusted, such as ATTA and to some extent, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, stand up and be counted. They need to present the true picture of what is happening to the region’s tourism industry to governments fast without fluffing the details or they could lose their members forever.
A turnaround in July even if Thailand’s Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand reopens air space to international flights is no longer on the cards. Tour operators who weigh the options know that by now you are talking about a gradual return of domestic travel and the first real signs of international travellers returning to Southeast Asia by the last quarter at the earliest. At best, recognise the first real sign of recovery peeping over the horizon in January 2021, one year after that first case outside of China was registered in Thailand.
There is an incredible volume of fake news going the rounds, news that says Covid-19 has a silver lining. Some sellers of good news said the virus established the true carrying capacity for the region. For example, Thailand was grossly mismanaging tourism when it welcomed 39.8 million tourists last year but the 12 million tourists it is likely to see this year would be just fine. The sea otters are back basking on the beaches just north of Phuket, pink dolphins returned, the sharks of Maya Bay prosper and sea turtles lay eggs once more on quiet sandy beaches. A pandemic stopped tourism in its tracks, righted the wrongs and made tourism sustainable for once. But it doesn’t work that way. For every tourist who disappeared a small enterprise went bust, a street vendor ended up in poverty and individuals who lived off tourism were left to wish life was as simple as basking in the sun on a deserted beach next to the sea otters. The flurry of panic emails represents the first rumblings as hundreds of tour operators ask for an immediate reopening of borders to revive international tourism.
Ironically big business hotels, international chains and department stores have the cash flow to survive a year, and by tweaking their prices, they can benefit financially from 12 million tourists visiting Thailand. They are not desperate. Banks support major corporations but ask a vendor who sold fried chicken to tourists at a beach location or Akha hill-tribe villagers who invested in homestays a year ago if their version of tourism is sustainable and worthy of a bank’s support? Invariably, they cannot pay off the loan sharks for a venture that was supposed to take them out of poverty.
So we talk about travel bubbles that mean absolutely nothing for most people who are hanging on by their fingernails wondering when will the first tourism dollar reappear. Focus on bringing back tourists, not the silliness of a small travel bubble. Give local vendors a chance once more to serve foreign visitors as quickly as possible. If it takes air bridges, green channels, and fast lanes to regain balance between health and commerce, so be it. But don’t make proud people paupers in the name of healthcare. Give them some credit for having the common sense to know by now what it will take to keep us healthy; social distancing, heightened hygiene regimes, wearing masks. We need tourism markets to open and cash to flow all the way to the fried chicken stand in a night bazaar.
Tour operators have a point when they demand answers on easing travel bans. Time and cash are running out fast. They may not be around when the clock ticks down and someone says “do you know it is exactly one year since the first Covid-19 case was reported outside of China right here in Thailand?” That milestone will pass but our dream business in tourism could just as easily slip into obscurity.