Backpackers’ return brings glimmer of hope for Thailand tourism revival

Chiang Mai tourism slowly picks up after two years of despair, though some call for more relaxed Covid entry rules to entice visitors

After months of absence, Chiang Mai’s waterfalls, night markets and hostels are once again filling up with a familiar sight: backpackers.

While Thailand was once a haven for budget travellers, Covid-19 devastated the tourism industry, which is only now starting to take tentative steps towards reopening.

People familiar with Chiang Mai at its tourism peak will still find the city relatively quiet, but those in the travel industry are seeing glimmers of hope after two years of despair.

“We can see the number slowly increase,” said Palakorn Viriya, owner of Deejai Backpackers hostel. Speaking to the Guardian from the hostel lobby, he described the previous two years as a “struggle”.

Palakorn said before Covid, he usually had 40-60 guests every night, but now he gets about 10 each night. Still, this is a marked improvement from 2020 and 2021.

“The last customer left the hostel in July 2020 and then there was nothing until November 2021,” when Thailand eased entry restrictions for vaccinated visitors, he said.

Chiang Mai in Thailand
Chiang Mai in Thailand is still relatively quiet, but tourists are returning. Photograph: John Angerson/Alamy

Palakorn says he was lucky because he owns the property outright but estimates as many as 80% of his competitors were forced to close down, mostly because they couldn’t afford rent with no customers.

“Now the customer is more than last year but still not really that much if compared before Covid,” said a Thai tour guide and driver who goes by the English name Vincent.

Vincent said before Covid hit, he had customers every single day, but now he only has customers two or three times a week, and many are still domestic travellers. During peak Covid waves, he had no customers at all and was forced to go back to working at his family’s rice mill.

Tuk tuk drivers wait for customers outside an unusually-empty night market in Chiang Mai in 2020
Tuk tuk drivers wait for customers outside an unusually-empty night market in Chiang Mai in 2020, as Covid caused visitor numbers to plunge. Photograph: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP/Getty Images

According to data from the country’s tourism ministry, nearly 204,000 tourists arrived in Thailand in the month of February. January arrivals slumped to 134,000 due to an Omicron wave, while December saw about 230,000. The previous 11 months combined saw less than 200,000.

But the recent uptick still pales in comparison to the 39.8 million international tourists that graced Thailand’s beaches, mountains and cities in 2019 before the pandemic, contributing 21.9% of Thailand’s total GDP.

Still, Palakorn and Vincent both believe the industry has rounded the corner. “I can see the town is getting busier,” Palakorn said.

“I think the tourist situation will absolutely improve in next year,” said Vincent.

Deejai hosted a pool party on 6 March, its first event in two years, and Palakorn says there will be more to come, although there are still complications. He estimates that about 250 people attended, a “successful” turnout. All attendees were given rapid tests before being admitted, with two people testing positive and getting sent home.

Israeli tourist Or walked down the street in Chiang Mai’s old city, wearing a tell-tale backpack half his size. He politely declined persistent offers for a ride from tuk-tuk drivers, incredulous that he would walk in the blazing heat. The 22-year-old was taking time off to travel after compulsory military service, a common tradition in Israel.

He arrived in Thailand in mid-February, after a few months in India.

“In Thailand I was shocked because in comparison to India there was a large amount of tourists,” he said. He said the highlight of his trip so far was a motorbike ride to a monk’s village in the Chiang Mai mountains.

He also planned to go to a traditional Thai cooking class, a very popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai.

“I find in Chiang Mai they love cuisine and food and I want to experience more of this,” he said.

An elephant and a worker in an elephant sanctuary
A visit to elephant sanctuaries had been a big draw for travellers to Chiang Mai. Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

But constantly changing regulations and onerous requirements may be keeping some tourists at bay. In Thailand, fully vaccinated travellers must apply online for a Thai Pass before entering, which requires vaccination, health insurance, flight bookings, and a pre-booked hotel and PCR test for the first night. This costs hundreds of dollars, which must be spent before the traveler has even been approved to enter.

Some tourism experts have urged Thailand to scrap the Thai Pass and the first-night quarantine.

“Thailand is at a crossroads now. There’s no choice but to open up and get rid of Test & Go,” said Thailand Hotels Association president Marisa Sukosol earlier this month.

In neighbouring Cambodia, fully vaccinated tourists simply need to take a rapid test on arrival and are free to go if it comes back negative. Or is planning to visit Cambodia next, and said the process was “way easier”.

Palakorn would like to see Thailand’s policies change as well, or risk losing budget travellers to countries like Cambodia.

“I want to see, when you arrive at the airport you just show your vaccine and that’s it,” he said.

Andrew Nachemson in Chiang Mai

The GuardianTramp

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