Most February evenings, it’s a struggle to push through the crowds to get to Yanakawee Srialam’s souvenir stall in Bangkok’s Ratchada Train night market. It’s peak tourism season and the market’s alleyways would normally be heaving with visitors.
But Chinese tourists, who make up the vast majority of Srialam’s usual customers, have all but disappeared. In place of pad Thai-themed fridge magnets a new addition to his stall, disposable face masks, are now his bestselling item.
China has stopped all outbound tour groups from leaving the country in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus and encouraged citizens to reconsider travelling abroad. International airlines have suspended tens of thousands of trips to and from mainland China. For countries such as Thailand – whose tourism sector depends heavily on Chinese travellers – it’s a huge blow.
Visitor numbers have plummeted, with hotel bookings and guided tours cancelled. On the resort island of Phuket, the professional guide association has warned that 3,000 Chinese-speaking tour guides are out of work and need financial support.
Last year, 11 million Chinese people visited Thailand– a number that is expected to fall by 2 million this year.
In Ratchada Train night market, stallholders are anxiously hoping that business will soon recover. “Our tourism depends on welcoming the Chinese,” says Srialam, whose profits are down by 70%.
In the market’s food section, Kittisuk Wongtaraloesakul says he has been forced to cut some staff members’ hours, and that two employees have chosen to leave. “Customers have decreased 10 fold,” he says. “[I] will only last a month with this traffic. I just want to break even, to keep it running.” His stall, Paomaemloie, which serves stir fry dishes and the popular “volcano pork rib soup”, is especially popular with Chinese customers, he says, but on some nights over recent weeks it has been empty.
The outbreak has wreaked havoc across the global tourism industry, which has become increasingly reliant on Chinese visitors. The number of Chinese people going abroad grew rapidly to 150 million in 2018, and operators have responded by designing packages specifically aimed at them.
Italy’s national hotel association, Federalberghi, has said the country – the most popular destination for Chinese visitors to Europe, recording 3.5 million in 2019 – could lose billions of euros as Chinese tourists cancel hotel bookings amid a flight ban. Ignazio Visco, the chief of the Bank of Italy, has also warned that the coronavirus outbreak could seriously impact the country’s already weak economy.
Venice, already suffering a decline in visitor numbers since the city was hit by extreme flooding in November, saw a 30% drop in bookings compared to last year ahead of its annual carnival, which got under way over the weekend.
“A temporary ban on arrivals is manageable,” said Bernabò Bocca, the president of the hotel association. “But if coronavirus discourages the Americans from travelling, it would mean trouble for Italy. The potential damage from a prolonged crisis could reach €4.5bn.”
Meanwhile, thousands of people on a luxury cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, remain stuck in quarantine off the coast of Japan. Passengers have mostly been confined to their cabins to stop the spread of the virus, which has so far reportedly infected 136 people.
The impact of the outbreak on the global tourism market is unknown, but it’s expected that Thailand, Japan and other nearby destinations will be among those hardest hit. Officials warn that an outbreak in one of Thailand’s tourist hotspots is possible.
In Bangkok, anti-bacterials gels are offered in shops while one of the luxury malls has begun taking customers’ temperatures. Masks were already worn by many because of the heavy pollution, but have now become even more common. Thailand’s health minister, Anutin Charnvirakul, has said that “farang” tourists, a sometimes dismissive term for Westerners, should be kicked out of the country if they do not wear one. He later apologised.
At Ratchada market, Radek Slepowronski and Margaret Ciszkowska, from Poland, said that they were taking precautions but weren’t overly worried. “In crowded places, on planes, buses, we wear masks, we wash our hands, we disinfect them,” said Ciszkowska. “But we’re not scared about it,” added Slepowronski.
For others, who have traveled from Japan, Hong Kong or who have not been able to return home to mainland China, Thailand feels a safe place to be. Anthony James, who is from the UK but lived in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, for nine years, left the city to go travelling just before it was placed under lockdown. He hasn’t experienced any symptoms.
“I feel a lot safer being here than back there. In the grand scheme of things the number [of cases] in Thailand is minimal compared to back home,” he says.
The handful of westerners visiting the market were little consolation to stallholders. “There are a few westerners coming, but westerners are not big spenders,” says Srialam. “It’s hard to make sales to them, they negotiate very strongly.” Chinese tourists, he says, are the most important for business.
At Wongtaraloesakul’s food stall, a sign reads “jiāyóu China, jiāyóu Wuhan”, which translates literally as “add oil”, meaning “keep up the fight”. His message to China is to get well soon: “Come back soon. We are waiting.”