It’s the middle of peak season, but the beaches are empty, businesses are boarded up and go-go girls in Patong bars dance in return for virtual drinks
But Phuket’s tourism industry sees a glimmer of hope in middle class Chinese who are getting over the shock of Covid-19 and looking to invest overseas
Gasping for tourists in the middle of a peak season devoured by the coronavirus pandemic, the bar, hotel and tour operators scraping by in Phuket, Thailand, are praying vaccines will open global borders before they are forced to close their businesses.
But amid the wreckage of stricken souvenir shops, ‘For Sale’ signs on half-complete beachside properties and abandoned clifftop guest houses, there are flickers of hope – as some island businesses take the cue offered by the virus to look to a future beyond mass tourism.
For that, all roads lead to China.
Over recent years money has washed onto an island with a strong Chinese flex; most of the local population are descendants of Hokkien Chinese traders whose shophouses and shrines decorate Phuket Town.
But the relative trickle of investment so far – mainly buying condos or running package tour businesses – is likely to return as a flood once the pandemic eases, as China’s middle classes become bolder with their overseas investments after a year at home.
“The pandemic has shifted the mindset in China. People are ready to take a chance after the shock of Covid-19,” says Paranyoo Banchuen, project director of Utopia Corporation, one of Phuket’s biggest developers.
Big city exiles are weighing up the island as a long-term safe bet to invest and later live, he says, in the same way they once saw Australia, the UK and Europe.
But those sanctuaries now feel even further away during a pandemic – and less welcoming to Chinese in the midst of a torrent of diplomatic disputes.
“They want somewhere closer to home with direct flights, warm weather where they can build a life for their families and send their kids to school,” Paranyoo says
Utopia, which pulls most of its clients mainly from Guangzhou, Beijing and Shanghai, started live feeds over WeChat and other Chinese apps in July, touring its nine developments ranging from condos in secluded hills (from around US$160,000) to luxury town house pool villas (from US$300,000).
At the high-end, plans are advanced for a ‘Lamborghini’ resort complex – complete with the marque’s red and black colours – developed in partnership with the Italian car brand and aimed at China’s rich.
During the pandemic Winnie Sun, Utopia’s China-born head of sales, has had a unique window into demand through her live-streams of properties on apps like ‘YY’ and ‘Yi’.
“My record was 80,000 following one live as I walked around explaining the facilities,” she says, adding that later translated into sales of 100 units.
“It makes sense. International schools here are half the price for the same standard [in China] and the flats are much bigger for twenty per cent of the cost of the mainland,” she adds.
THAIS SEEING THAILAND
With vaccines only just being rolled out across the world, Thai officials do not expect international borders to open until mid 2021.
Phuket welcomed 10 million foreign tourists in 2019, according to official data, most of them from China. That figure is unlikely to be reached again.
Now, the island is relying on domestic visitors lured by government part-payment schemes; expats and the dribble of foreign tourists willing to enter on special visas after a 14-day quarantine.
The restrictions have gutted swathes of Phuket, the boarded up businesses and darkened streets of the once raucous tourist hotspot of Patong telling a story of economic obliteration.
“December is usually the best month of the year but there’s virtually no one here,” says Phunyarinda Phetkul, the manager of Sweetie Bar on the now-tamed Bangla Walking Street.
Profits have collapsed as owners reduce food and drink prices to entice locals but with dozens of staff to pay they have clung on – for now – unlike thousands of other businesses. “A tourist destination without tourists, how long can that last?”
But resilience and innovation is keeping some people in jobs – invaluable across an island economy where entire families are engaged in tourism in one way or another.
At the open air “Pumpui” bar, a few dozen young women in sparkling high heels and short skirts dance on a stage with no customers in front of them.
Instead, they earn money from “virtual drinks” bought for them via Facebook or YouTube by fans from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea.
“I make about 100 baht [US$3] for each drink,” says dancer Fon. “At least it is something.”
Phuket is no stranger to calamity. It rebuilt from the 2004 Asian tsunami and the sudden collapse in Chinese package tours after a 2018 boat disaster killed dozens of visitors.
This time there is a dawning recognition that there may never be a return to business as usual.
But that may allow the tourist industry to reboot from the mass model of the last decade or so to target a richer clientele hunting gastronomy, education, sports and medical tourism.
“We don’t want 10 million tourists per year any more – it’s bad for our natural resources and environment,” Nipon Akewanich, Executive Chairman of Phuket City Development.
“From now on, what Phuket needs is quality and sustainable tourism – longer stay, higher spending.”
But until the borders reopen, Thais who can afford it are leaping at the chance to discover parts of their country previously dominated by high-spending foreigners.
“Normally I go to Japan,” says Bangkokian Patita, 62, hiding from the sun under a giant coconut tree on an expanse of white sand beach.
“But I’ve been to Phuket twice since the pandemic. I realise I’ve been missing out on my country.”