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Tourists Returning to Thailand Find Closed Bars, Empty Streets

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From Bloomberg News

In downtown Bangkok’s Patpong area, most evenings are quiet. Before the pandemic, it was one of the world’s most notorious red-light districts, attracting foreign tourists to its many bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors. With the tourism industry decimated by two years of Covid-19, most of the street’s businesses are locked, with “Closed” signs in the windows. At the area’s night bazaar—for decades the place to buy Red Bull T-shirts, Thai boxing pants, and fake Rolex watches—the vendors are gone.

Thailand wants to get them back. Tourism accounted for one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product before the pandemic, with almost 40 million foreign tourists generating more than $60 billion in 2019. In early February, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s government began allowing vaccinated travelers to enter quarantine-free.

Like many countries that are now treating Covid as endemic, Thailand is eager to jump-start its tourism industry. But visitors expecting bustling restaurants, bars, and markets may be in for a shock, because many of the small businesses that played major roles in Thailand’s tourism ecosystem closed during the lockdowns and haven’t reopened. And large, higher-end businesses are offering steep discounts and special packages to capture the few visitors who are still traveling, squeezing out the smaller operators that have survived.

Thailand’s strict travel regulations, such as requirements to take multiple Covid tests and provide proof of medical insurance with at least $50,000 coverage, will also limit the type of people who come, according to Bill Heinecke, chairman of Bangkok-based Minor International Pcl, one of Southeast Asia’s largest hospitality, restaurant, and lifestyle companies. “Now when you travel generally, first and business classes are full, while economy is empty,” Heinecke says. “So the kind of travelers that we’re seeing now are the higher-end travelers who tend to stay longer because of all the hassle you have to go through.”

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