The Khao San Road shop is filled with shiny magnets, brightly colored elephant key chains and patterned cotton pants that have become unofficial uniforms for backpackers in Southeast Asia.
But for now, nobody bought it.
In Thailand, where tourism makes up 18% of the country’s GDP, the Tourism Authority estimates the number of visitors could fall 65% this year.
But the 45-year-old woman, who has been selling souvenirs on the street for more than a decade, still opens her shop every day, hoping that she might be lucky with rare tourists passing by.
With so much at stake for livelihoods and the economy, countries around the world are looking for ways to keep the tourism business going.
But experts warn that even with new initiatives, it can take years for travel to rise to pre-Covid-19 levels. And even when that happens, we may never travel the same way again.
Traditional Thai dancers wearing face shields perform at Bangkok’s Erawan Temple, which reopened after the Thai government relaxed steps to combat the spread of Covid-19 on May 4.
MLADEN ANTONOV / AFP / Getty Images
In the short term, the future of tourism is a regional travel bubble.
For most countries, staying isolated is not a choice they can make in the long run, and experts estimate it is only a matter of time before other countries make their own travel bubbles.
Vietnam and Thailand can work to create travel corridors over the next few months, according to Mario Hardy, based in Thailand, chief executive of the non-profit Asia Pacific Travel Association (PATA).
Aviation analyst Brendan Sobie expects to see similar arrangements in Europe and North America.
When the country looks for partner partners, he said they would consider several factors. They will look for countries that appear to have outbreaks under control – and which have statistics they can trust.
Hardy thinks they also tend to remain regional at first.
They also tend to partner with countries that already have strong geopolitical relations with them, said Hong Kong University tourism geographer Benjamin Iaquinto, adding that New Zealand and Australia already have close political ties so their partners make sense.
The survey shows that Chinese tourists are interested in staying with what they know and not traveling too far, said Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks global hospitality consulting. That means Thailand, which attracts around 11 million Chinese tourists a year, could be one of the first to open a trip to China.
China may be less interested in opening trips to places where there is anti-China sentiment during the outbreak – places like Australia, said Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia who research tourism.
“I think tourism will be marred by geopolitical games or strategies that have been played to take advantage of the crisis,” he said.
And the bubbles will change. If there is a case revival in a country, the travel corridor will only be closed, added Hardy.
Reopen the border
It may be a long time before there is widespread distribution outside our regional bubble, experts say.
That means that the trip from the United States to Asia, for example, will be a long time, noted Hardy.
“Until they master the situation in the United States, no country or very few countries allow them to travel to their destination,” Hardy said. “Others who do not have the situation under control will be left for a certain period of time.”
For countries that depend heavily on tourism, they need to balance health problems with economic problems. But even if they feel the pressure to open beyond the bubble, that doesn’t mean they will see a flood of visitors.
“If one country wants to open, but no one is comfortable going to that country for any reason, it will not work,” Sobie said.
And maybe there are still travel strategies besides bubbles.
Thailand is considering opening certain areas for foreign tourists, which means that visitors are effectively contained in one place, such as an island.
New Zealand claims to have “eliminated” the corona virus when it announced easing restrictions from “level four” to “level three,” with new cases in a single number.
“This will be beneficial for tourists and locals, because this is almost a kind of quarantine,” said Thailand Governor Tourism Authority Yuthasak Supasorn.
But the appeal will depend on what quarantine rules are – if Australians still have to go through quarantine two weeks after they return from a Thai vacation, they might not be too interested in island retreats.
After 9/11, airports around the world launched additional security measures. Experts hope that coronavirus will be the same but with a focus on health.
The question that remains to be answered is what the action will look like.
Passengers can check their temperature at the airport or test for coronavirus before boarding the aircraft. But there are some problems that must be solved. The authorities need to feel comfortable that the fast tests are accurate and decide how long before a passenger flight needs to be tested.
But again, there are problems that need to be resolved.
“My understanding is that you cannot expect international travel to return to normal, really until we have the vaccine,” Higgins-Desbiolles said. “Many of these are guessing at the moment and looking forward.”
What happens next
With so much unknown about the future of tourism, there is a battle raging in the industry about whether this can end up changing tourism forever – maybe even for the better.
Some, like Barnett, think that eventually everything will return to normal.
“I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, it will be a two-year climb to get this back,” he said. “This will not lead to the travel business.”
Others, such as Hardy and Higgins-Desbiolles, see this as an opportunity to do a reset – time to look at overcoming long-standing problems such as the effects of overtourism on local culture and the environment.
“There are people like me who say that we need to rethink everything,” said Higgins-Desbiolles.
“If you do something right, where you get the idea of tourism based on the idea of fairness, friendliness, respect and good interaction, everyone benefits from it because you feel welcomed as a tourist.”
He wants to see slower and wiser tourism – tourism that not only benefits travelers, but also the local economy and the local community.
In theory, that means people like Cletana and others who work in Bangkok will benefit. But for now, they are more focused on the immediate future.
On Thursday, Niwet Phumiwetsoonthorn, who was driving a tuk-tuk on Khao San Road, told CNN Travel that her daily income had fallen from $ 70 to $ 2 or not at all. He has no money to send back to his wife and children in other provinces.
For the first time in his life, he was waiting in line for food donations.
“I just can’t spend all day in my room and watch the news on TV. It makes me even more worried,” said Niwet, who is still waiting on the road with her friends even though she has no customers. “We cheered for each other to spend the day.”
The shop owner Cletena – a widow with a son who needs treatment for health problems – has little savings and has no plan B.
“I don’t know if and how this will get better,” he said. “Plague like this – people will be afraid for a long time.”
Julia Hollingsworth reports and writes from Wellington, New Zealand. Kocha Olarn reports from Bangkok, Thailand.