SE Asia feels the burn as virus puts tourists away

Aidan Jones –

Elephant parks unvisited, curios at markets unsold as tuk-tuks sit idle: Southeast Asia is facing billions of dollars in losses from a collapse in Chinese tourism since the outbreak of a deadly new coronavirus.
From Luang Prabang in northern Laos to Pattaya in Thailand, Hoi An in Vietnam and the Cambodian town of Sihanoukville, takings have plummeted as Chinese travellers find themselves subject to a host of restrictions at home and abroad.
“We haven’t had any Chinese for 10 days since they closed the road from Yunnan,” says Ong Tau, 47, from behind her stall of fruit shakes in the temple-studded Laotian colonial town of Luang Prabang. “Business is down 20-30 per cent… it will get worse.” Tour guides, mall workers and restaurant staff are all feeling the burn as Chinese — the world’s biggest travellers — stay at home in the middle of a global health crisis.
“My friend has lost four or five big tour groups… they would have paid for his low season,” said Tee, a guide in Luang Prabang, a mass of tuk-tuks standing idle behind him.
But in one of Southeast Asia’s least well-resourced countries, there may be one bright side to the sudden economic pain.
“We don’t know how to protect ourselves,” he added. “The government doesn’t tell people anything… so maybe less Chinese is a good thing for now.”
The slump is being felt sharply in Thailand, where tourism authorities say arrivals from China — usually close to one million a month — have plunged by 90 per cent so far this February.
At the Chang Siam Elephant Park in Pattaya, a few hours south of Bangkok, owner Nantakorn Phatnamrob fears he will soon be pressed into debt to float a business which has lost nearly $65,000 since the outbreak.
“People are afraid to visit,” he said. “If it stays like this, I will have to get a loan from the bank.” Crocodile farms and tiger sanctuaries are also deserted, leaving owners to feed expensive star attractions.
The outbreak has also spooked western tourists at the height of peak season in what has already been a tough period for Thai tourism thanks to a strong baht.
Thailand anticipates shedding five million tourists this year, taking with them “250 billion baht (over $8 billion) in revenue”, according to Don Nakornthab, director of economic policy at Bank of Thailand.
That will spell bad news for the untold number of Thais working in the tourism sector.
Ma Mya, 22, who sells trinkets in Pattaya, says she may soon have to return to her home in northern Thailand. — Reuters