Thailand: No More Tourists I ARTE Documentary
Kata Beach is located on Thailand's Phuket Island. Two kilometres of white sand attract tourists from around the globe, especially in winter, during the warm, dry season. But Covid-19's keeping them away from the pearl of the Andaman Sea, and the mood's hit rock bottom.
Though Phuket's economy depends on tourism, Thailand has closed its borders due to the pandemic. Even Phuket's biggest fans from abroad have to quarantine upon arrival. Paradise has been shut down. I heard tourists are coming back because international flights to Phuket have started again. But they must spend 14 days in their hotel first, they're not allowed to leave. If that's how things start, no-one will come here.
Tour operator Thierry Costes has lived in Phuket for 24 years. Like the locals this French expat waits for better days on his dream island. I heard the government started the vaccine roll-out on 14 February, the day of love. Yeah, they've already started, but there are 70 million in Thailand and it'll take a while before everyone's vaccinated. The government announced that the vaccination campaign will be done next December. I don't believe it.
We'll all be dead by then. That's right, we'll all be dead. Hotels in Kata Beach, one of the most popular among tourists, have been closed for some time, most importantly Club Med, since the pandemic started in March 2020. This popular resort was Costes' main source of work. After living in Phuket for so long, you know what's happening here, and it's like an apocalypse. Because of the pandemic Costes closed his company, Siam Evasion.
Before the pandemic 14 million visitors came to Phuket each year, spending around ten billion euros. The difference is hard to believe when you look at old videos, all those people. And when you see how dead things are now. I think there used to be 600 hotels in Phuket, half of them in Patong. That's how things were day and night, it never stopped. People were at the beach during the day and on Bangla Road at night, with all the bars, where you could meet lover boys or just stroll round.
And then it was all over. The streets of Patong, once so full of life, were like a ghost town. To get rid of the virus, the government stopped the party and locked down the country with drastic public-health measures. Upon arrival foreigners must spend 14 days in seized hotels, isolated and under police supervision, and have several PCR tests. Thais must stay in their neighbourhood or region as soon as cases are reported.
Masks are obligatory here. The fine for refusing to wear them equals a month's pay, though that's rarely necessary. Since a tsunami hit in 2004, the Thai people are used to crisis management. They realise it's better to fall in line, cooperate, and be patient.
In Patong the tourists have been replaced by crowds that aren't as cheerful: Thais who line up to receive their daily food rations. Maintain a distance. Try to stay three steps apart. You'll get a food coupon. Move up a little. Khun Pati's a hotel manager, and he isn't putting up any more tourists.
But he and some members of the staff are helping distribute food. We cook simple food but try to vary the menu so it doesn't get boring. We usually deliver, and some people make donations because there was a death in their family or a birthday. That's considered an offering.
Generosity's part of our culture, no matter what we go through. Whether a tsunami or the Covid-19 pandemic. We share like our ancestors and have for generations. However, it seems that the government isn't overly concerned about its citizens.
The lucky minority with social insurance received financial support during the first lockdown, a total of 130 euros, and then nothing. Phang Gha, about 100 kilometres from the island's tourist hot spot, lived off masses of visitors in flip-flops and tank tops who wanted to go boating for a few hours. Look here. Before Covid-19 1,000 tourists were here and 200 boats went out.
Now they're just anchored. Witchan had a fleet of six buses, which are idle because all the customers are gone. Crushed by debt, Witchan had to sell them.
Guys like me used to bring tourists to Phang Nga for a boat tour to the neighbouring islands. But now there's no-one, neither at the starting point nor the destination. Phang Nga's now a giant cemetery for the wooden boats, and everyone's struggling to find a new daily rhythm. Witchan comes from this heavily-wooded area, and now he harvests rubber at his family's plantation. This job's a new beginning, I have to learn it. It's not easy.
There are special things about every job. I spent 20 years giving excursions to Phuket, and I knew that like the back of my hand. But this... I don't really have a choice. I have to get back to Phang Nga.
This job's for my kids, so they can keep going to school. I was lucky: My parents still have land that can be farmed. I still have an income, unlike a few of my friends. They're unemployed and have lost everything. I'm lucky.
In the opinions of others Witchan's privileged. He gets plenty to eat at his sister's restaurant. Do you want a milk coffee? Or some liang? Thanks, just water. He watches the economic downturn that's crippling his country with sadness and resignation. The tsunami washed everything away, here in Phang Nga and in Phuket, but not everywhere in the world. The pandemic, that's worldwide.
Every country's affected. And the effects will definitely be felt in the long term, more than with a tsunami. The Thais who had jobs in Phuket and benefitted from tourism had better lives.
Avoiding the virus means staying away from everyone who can spread it. No more guests means no money. This has been difficult for the people. But difficult times are familiar to Phuket. So instead of wallowing in self-pity, many are planning for their lives in the future. Cell and his wife, who live near Thalang Road, are optimistic.
Covid-19 is everywhere in the world, things aren't difficult just in Thailand. Cell speaks English and a little French, so he could make a good living in the tourist industry. In the old days, when he was a guide. Since the borders closed, he's worked in the kitchen and helps his wife with gui chai, a Phuket speciality. The money we earn with our dumplings, gui chai, is just enough to buy food every day and send our kids to school, both of our kids.
And not just that, we can pay our bills, water and gas. It makes things a little easier. Yeah, but we have to shop every day. We must work seven days a week to make enough to live.
We never had to work this hard, but now we can't take a single day off. We have to tighten our belts. Work more than before for less money.
Less money every day. Cell uses a sidecar to haul his dumplings. This is how he rides to Phuket's markets.
Without tourists local Thais fill the markets of Chalong beneath the Big Buddha. This is a wholesale market and a great place to do business. It was always full. You could do so much business here, it was full of tourists. But we're just getting by in the pandemic. Many have lost their jobs, so everyone's out selling things now.
The unemployed are peddling in the street. There are more sellers and fewer customers. In the Land of Smiles there's little talk about government orders, even if they're draconian.
People remain optimistic and do what they can to help themselves. I just want to live a happy life. I don't feel well when I worry, so I carry on and try to stay positive. I see my friends, and that's all we can do.
It's saving us, that's why we do it. The country's economy is awful, but the people are surviving. That's better than letting foreigners in who infect us. What's in them? Bamboo, taro, sweet potato. Can I have a mix for 50 cents? OK, and everything together? And it's working. The Kingdom of Thailand can be proud of its Covid-19 statistics.
Only 25,000 infections in one year and about 80 deaths since the pandemic began, less than a dozen in Phuket. As you see, we aren't giving up. The epidemic will end, and everything'll get better.
Customers would rather spend their money here than in a department store. The government initiated a payback scheme to support market sellers and local customers. Small retailers suggested it and advertise it. We call this project Give and Take. Everyone has a budget of 100 euros per month. Four euros can be spent daily, and only with small retailers.
Whoever spends four euros at my stand gets two back from the government. The budget for Cell's family has seen better days. How much are these? Seventy each. Are they for your grandmother? No, I'm taking them to the temple.
How many should I pack up? His wife, Hom, and daughter Paly still buy offerings before going to the temple. We go to the temple to pray as often as we can. So we stay healthy, don't get sick, and are a happy family. Our religion teaches us to let go, being afraid and stressing out doesn't help. Prayer makes us better.
Phuket's residents have turned back to nature's bounty. The islanders' vital food source is still the sea. In south-eastern Moudong Lot, Key and Bang share fuel costs for a boat and hope for a good catch.
Hey, there are some. People love this fish. They're sea bass.
Since there are fewer tourists to feed, catches have been getting bigger. Another one. It's like winning the lottery. How did I manage this? There are so many today. Don't try to understand why.
The small ones are tangs. We fry them, but they don't bring much. I have a bite too. Man, it's big. Great.
It'll sell for a lot. The three fishermen used to sell their catch to restaurants. They've adapted since, or actually their wives have. In this matriarchal society wives manage the family's money.
Key's wife, Sadja, sells the fish in Phuket Town's Tahn Tong neighbourhood. Everything's done through social networks. After posting photos on Facebook, I just have to wait until a customer contacts me. Well, it's taking a bit longer today. It's Chinese New Year.
Everybody's outside. I hope I can sell all of it. It doesn't take long for the phone to ring. Hello, 500 grams? Yeah, you contacted me on Facebook. One kilo? Many want sea bass. Key and Sadja sell their catch in under an hour and earn 16 euros, including delivery. In Phuket the sea's a source of income for both rich and poor.
Kim, who owns an expensive restaurant in Phuket Town, has been hit hard by the pandemic. There aren't as many customers, but only the seafood on the menu is happy about that. Get me three or four, including a big one. Yeah, like that. I want five of them. One, two, three...
Look at that one, it's at least a kilo. OK. OK, bye. Kim Teerasaak belongs to a rich Thai family. His grandparents made a fortune with tin, then switched to maritime trade.
The youngest of six, he's trying his luck with a luxury restaurant. In exclusive Phuket Town his Tu Kab Khao's popular among wealthy locals and tourists. Customers, rich Thais from Bangkok or abroad, are no longer frequent, so Kim serves the ones there more attentively. Good evening. Have you made a choice? Not yet.
OK. We have a sale on spiny lobster, just 8.50 euros. It's served with garlic, the whole lobster, Only for this month, for the lovely month. We serve them with garlic and in all kinds of recipes. They're only 8.50.
Until month's end. Then it's 10.50. Kim's restaurant has had a Michelin star for three months, but it's rarely full. People say, OK, this family, they own this, they own that, they have so much money, they don't care. But wrong. Now they get affected. Now we've closed one room, but if I close this restaurant, that means a lot of my employees will lose money.
That means I decided to open this restaurant, and I try to get some people coming back and spend some money to eat. If you ask what we've learned about Covid-19, I think we've learned a lot in this town. Believe me, I think local people, like me also, or the people I know from my business in Phuket, we know now, we cannot... We cannot concentrate on only one business.
Since Covid-19, Phuket has abandoned mass tourism, everyone's reinventing themselves. Like some restaurants the most exclusive hotels continue to pamper their wealthy guests to stay open. The most famous example, the five star resort Sripanwa, has discovered a perfect niche. Quarantines, at 1,500 euros per night. For everyone who can afford to come to the island by private jet.
This is a rather grim scenario. This could be Phuket's future, an exclusive destination for the super-rich.