The ghost island of Phuket squats in a Thailand without tourists

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Phuket (Thailand) (AFP)

Phuket’s go-go dancers play on the phones in empty bars lining deserted streets as Thailand’s tourist island recovers from the ravages of the pandemic with little sign of an upcoming recovery.

The pools are empty, chairs are stacked in deserted restaurants, and the normally crowded beaches are so quiet that they even see rare species of sea turtles arriving to nest.

Last year, more than nine million tourists visited Phuket, the second most popular destination in the kingdom after Bangkok.

Today, nearly all of the island’s 3,000 hotels are closed and the main town of Patong has become a “ghost town,” says local mogul Preechawut Keesin, who owns five nightclubs and around 600 hotel rooms.

Thailand has so far remained relatively unscathed from the global epidemic with around 3,600 confirmed cases and only a few dozen deaths.

But the kingdom’s decision to focus on tackling the virus has dealt a brutal blow to the economy, which is expected to contract 7-9% this year and leave millions unemployed.

“My boss wants to help the staff keep their jobs, but I don’t think we can survive after the end of the year,” sighs Jantima Tongsrijern, manager of the Pum Pui bar.

– “Worse than the tsunami” –

Normally, 80% of the island’s profits come from tourism, a sector that employs more than 300,000 people.

Tens of thousands of those who lost their jobs have returned to their home provinces.

Life is tough for those who hold on.

Some have agreed to huge pay cuts, while others have little choice but to join the long lines at food distribution centers or to collect income where they can.

Bar owner Orathai Sidel says she earns 100,000 baht ($ 3,200) a month in high season.

Her business being the victim of the pandemic, she now sells desserts in a cart by the side of the street, earning just $ 3 a day to try to cover her children’s school fees.

“We are fighting just to survive,” says Poi, another street vendor, fired in June from the restaurant where she worked.

Phuket is expected to welcome Thailand’s first foreign tourists since April in a cautious experience of the kingdom, but their arrival is being pushed back.

And the mandatory two-week quarantine and the steep price – several thousand dollars per person – will mean this is a niche market.

“We will need to focus on developing local customers and individual travelers rather than mass tourism,” says Preechawut Keesin.

Before the pandemic, domestic vacationers made up only 30% of visitors to Phuket, prompting the local tourism industry to rethink its business model.

“We do not expect a return to normal for three years,” predicts Kongsak Khoopongsakorn.

“The situation is much worse than after the 2004 tsunami.”

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