Phuket struggles amid a pandemic
Arriving in Phuket, everything looked different. I felt the silence as crowds of foreign tourists have disappeared from Phuket International Airport. The atmosphere was lonelier than usual with only a small group of passengers gathering at the luggage belt. There were no long queues in front of the bathrooms or check-in counters.
Some hotel staff and vans stood by to pick up their customers at the entrance as I walked slowly spending about 15 minutes doing other things before leaving the terminal. This is not a normal sight during the high tourist season.
Last year, Phuket International Airport welcomed approximately 25,452 visitors a day. Meanwhile, Phuket itself has attracted around 15 million tourists every year, making it Thailand's second most popular destination after Bangkok. However, due to Covid-19, the number of tourists to the city dropped to just 25,596 between March and October.
It took only 20 minutes to get from the airport to Ao Po Pier, which is located 20km away. Once again, I felt unfamiliar with the lonely atmosphere in a place which had in recent years welcomed more than 2,000 tourists from South Korea, China and Europe per day. However, on that day there were only five to 10 holidaymakers.
I met an official from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports on a ferry while cruising to Phang Nga Bay. He asked where I came from before encouraging me that this was a golden time for Thai travellers to enjoy the beauty of nature. However, some adventure activities are not the nature of Thais. Although tour operators have cut their prices to draw Thai vacationers, not many tourists are coming.
The official said Thais preferred to roam around and take photos in downtown Phuket rather than trekking, rock climbing or diving. This came to light when I landed on the shore of Koh Khao Phing Kan and noticed that there was only my group on the island.
This small isle is known for its iconic view of Khao Tapu, which was seen in the James Bond film The Man With The Golden Gun in 1974, making it a powerful magnet for Ao Phang Nga National Park.
In the past, it was crowded with thousands of tourists during the day following in the footsteps of the English spy but now it is practically deserted. This was my first visit and it felt relaxing to walk around without a crowd. Every corner was like a viewpoint overlooking a towering nail-shaped limestone about 40m from the shore.
Before returning to my boat, I stopped at a souvenir stall and bought a pair of silver earrings adorned with pearls for my mom after its owner said she hadn't sold anything that day. This area used to have 109 shops but most are now closed due to the drastic decline in visitors. The owner of the stall I was at said she used to earn around 1,000 baht to 1,200 baht per day but now it's hard to earn even 500 baht. Therefore, she has shifted to e-commerce and is aiming to expand her reach on Facebook. Despite being in her 50s, she has learned to use technology in this digital age.
Afterwards, I continued to Koh Hong and enjoyed canoeing to explore limestone caves. Here, everything was frozen in time and it reminded me of a decade ago when I fell in love with clear turquoise waters and sculpture-like stones in different designs. However, this time, I had more time to take in the fresh air and enjoy the beauty of nature.
The tranquil cruise took around 30 minutes and our paddler also served as a guide. Apart from the history of the caves, I asked him about his life and he said that he just came back to work after staying at home for several months. He tried to find a new job in the tourism industry but it was hard since the government has extended the entry ban of foreign tourists.
While the authorities are attempting to boost domestic tourism, the popular resort town of Phuket is being criticised for its high living expenses. Many luxury five-star hotels need to offer special promotions to draw Thai travellers and families. Therefore, this is a good time for those -- such as travel bloggers -- dreaming of enjoying luxury holiday experiences to visit.
Furthermore, the private sector is creating an opportunity during a crisis. For example, Ao Po Pier has upgraded itself into a smart dock using a facial recognition system and tracking technology to enhance safety as part of the Phuket smart city project.
"The zero-dollar tours have damaged Thailand's tourism for several years, resulting in local tour operators and hoteliers struggling to survive in a pricing war. This is a good chance for us to improve tourism management before the country reopens its border," said Chaiya Rapuepol, who operates Ao Po Pier and serves as president of the Andaman Tourism Business Association.
The Covid-19 crisis has provided us with a lesson. We need to be more self-reliant and learn to share and help each other.
Pattarawadee Saengmanee is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.