His Khao San Road shop is filled with gleaming magnets, brightly colored elephant keychains and patterned cotton trousers that have become an unofficial uniform for backpackers in Southeast Asia.
But for now, there is no one to buy them.
In Thailand, where tourism accounts for 18% of the country’s GDP, the Tourism Authority predicts that the number of visitors could drop by 65% this year.
But the 45-year-old, who has been selling souvenirs on the street for over a decade, still opens her shop every day, hoping she will be lucky with a rare passing tourist.
With so much at stake for livelihoods and economies, countries around the world are looking for ways to keep tourism businesses afloat.
But experts warn that even with new initiatives, it may take years before the trip rises to pre-Covid-19 levels. And even when it happens, we may never travel the same way again.
Traditional Thai dancers wearing protective shields perform at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, which was reopened after the Thai government eased measures to combat the spread of Covid-19 on May 4th.
MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / Getty Images
In the short term, the future of tourism is regional travel bubbles.
For most countries, staying isolated is not an option they can afford in the long run, and experts predict that it is only a matter of time before other countries create travel bubbles.
Vietnam and Thailand could seek to create a travel corridor in the coming months, according to Thailand-based Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) for profit.
Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie plans to see similar deals in Europe and North America.
When countries are looking for couple partners, he says they will take some factors into consideration. They will look for countries that seem to have their outbreaks under control – and that have reliable statistics.
Hardy thinks that they will probably also be regional at first.
They are also likely to mate with countries with which they already have strong geopolitical relationships, says University of Hong Kong tourism geographer Benjamin Iaquinto, adding that New Zealand and Australia already have close political relations, so their pairing has sense.
Polls show that Chinese tourists are eager to stick to what they know and not to travel too far, says Bill Barnett, CEO of global hospitality consulting C9 Hotelworks. This means that Thailand, which attracts around 11 million Chinese tourists per year, may be one of the first to open trips to China.
China may be less interested in opening trips to places where there was an anti-Chinese sentiment during the outbreak – places like Australia, says Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia researching tourism.
“I think tourism will be damaged by games or geopolitical strategies put in place to exploit the crisis,” he says.
And the bubbles will be volatile. If there is a renaissance of cases in a country, the travel corridors will close, adds Hardy.
Reopening of borders
It will probably be a long time before there is a broad journey beyond our regional bubbles, experts say.
This means that the journey from the United States to Asia, for example, will be very long, notes Hardy.
“Until they have control over the situation in the United States, no country or very few countries will allow them to travel to their destinations,” says Hardy. “Others who do not have the situation under control will be excluded for a certain period of time.”
For countries that depend heavily on tourism, they will have to balance health concerns with economic ones. But even if they feel the pressure to open up beyond a bubble, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will see a flood of visitors.
“If a country wants to open up, but nobody is comfortable with going to that country for any reason, it won’t work,” Sobie points out.
And there may still be travel strategies in addition to bubbles.
Thailand is considering opening some areas to foreign tourists, which means that visitors are actually contained in one place, like an island.
New Zealand claims to have “eliminated” coronavirus while the country announces the relaxation of restrictions from “level four” to “level three”, with new cases in single figures.
“This will be beneficial to both tourists and local residents, as it is almost a sort of quarantine,” says Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of Thailand’s tourism authority.
But the appeal will depend on which quarantine rules will remain in place – if Australians still have to spend a two-week quarantine after returning from a holiday in Thailand, they may not be overly excited about a retreat to the island.
After 11 September, airports around the world have introduced additional security measures. Experts predict that coronavirus will be the same, but with a focus on health.
The question that remains to be answered is how these measures will look.
Passengers can have their temperature checked at the airport or be tested for coronavirus before boarding the plane. But there are problems to be solved in this regard. Authorities should be sure that the rapid tests are accurate and will decide how long before a flight has to be tested by a passenger.
But again, there are problems that need to be solved.
“My understanding is that you cannot expect international travel to return to what it was before, until we have a vaccine,” says Higgins-Desbiolles. “Much of this is guessing right now and looking forward.”
What comes next
With so many unknowns about the future of tourism, there is a raging battle in the sector to find out if this could end up changing tourism forever – perhaps even for the better.
Some, like Barnett, think that things will eventually return to normal.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen today or tomorrow, it’s going to be a two-year uphill climb to get it back,” he says. “This isn’t intended for 360 travel businesses.”
Others, such as Hardy and Higgins-Desbiolles, see this as an opportunity for restoration – a time to examine long-standing issues such as the effects of excess tourism on local cultures and the environment.
“There are people like me who say we have to rethink everything,” says Higgins-Desbiolles.
“If you do things the right way, where you get the idea of tourism based on this idea of fairness, hospitality, respect and good interactions, everyone benefits from it because then you feel welcomed as a tourist.”
He wants to see tourism that is slower and more reflective – tourism that not only benefits the traveler, but also the local economies and local communities.
In theory, this means that people like Cletana and other people who work in Bangkok will benefit. But for now, they are more focused on the immediate future.
On Thursday, Niwet Phumiwetsoonthorn, who drove a tuk-tuk on Khao San Road, told CNN Travel that his daily income has dropped from $ 70 to $ 2 or even nothing. He has no money to send to his wife and children in another province.
For the first time in his life, he queued for food donations.
“I can’t spend the whole day in my room and watch the news on TV. It makes me even more anxious,” says Niwet, who still waits on the street with his friends even if he has no clients. “We are encouraging each other to spend the day.”
The owner of the Cletena store – a widow with a son who requires treatment for health problems – has little savings and no plan B.
“I don’t know if and how it will get better,” he says. “This type of epidemic – people will be afraid for a long time.”
Julia Hollingsworth reported and wrote from Wellington, New Zealand. Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, Thailand.
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