During “golden week ” last year, the cash flowed at Nam Sing Bird’s Nest Restaurant in Pattaya as flush Chinese tourists packed into the Thai party town for the big spending holiday period.
But this year the restaurant – which sells bird’s nest and shark fin soups for up to US$60 (S$80) a bowl – has not yet had a single customer, as the racy resort city faces its toughest times in memory with mainland Chinese visitors staying at home due to travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus.
“We made 300,000 baht (S$13,000) a day during the last golden week,” said a staff member who gave her name as Joy. “Now we haven’t had a single Chinese customer … even the ones that live here.”
Golden week was conceived as a way to give a late year jolt to China’s domestic economy following the National Day holiday on October 1. As Chinese wealth multiplied, mainland cash has been spread across the world during the holiday week.
With its guarantee of sun, good food and wild nightlife, as well as daily flights, Thailand has scooped up an oversized proportion of that money.
Last year, Thailand was behind only Japan as the most visited overseas golden week destination for Chinese tourists, according to bookings giant Agoda, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars.
Pattaya, a city with a special semi-autonomous status which allows its edgy nightlife to thrive, is feeling the economic pain of the coronavirus restrictions particularly sharply after hooking its economy to Chinese money.
“It’s been bad without the tourists,” said Pattaya City deputy mayor Ronakij Akasing.
“The Chinese make up the majority of the visitors here. I doubt they will be able to return this year even though I know they are very eager and ready to come back … the Thai government will play it safe.”
From tourists and bargain-hunting shoppers to investors, Pattaya has morphed into an all-in-one destination for mainland visitors.
Tour groups used to amble open-mouthed through ‘Walking Street’, a neon-lit stretch of go-go bars offering food and drink promotions, while property investors would sweep in for packages mixing a boozy break in the sun with condominium purchases.
But now the streets are quiet.
Second Road – a jumble of hotpot restaurants, property agents, gold shops and massage parlours aimed at Chinese clientele – offers a snapshot of the desolation.
‘For sale’ signs abound as businesses go bankrupt or close until the tourists return. Mandarin language adverts offer huge discounts for property rentals and purchases.
The lights are even off at Tiffany’s Show, Pattaya’s glittering transgender cabaret which is one of the city’s flagship tourist attractions.
“We’ve been closed since March,” said Alisa Kunpalin, managing director of the show. Her family founded Tiffany’s and have survived four decades of economic ups and downs in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy.
“Even if the Chinese return, without a vaccine I don’t think I’d risk opening it back up,” she said.
Fearing an uncontrollable outbreak, Thailand’s embattled government chose to protect public health over the economy, successfully managing to contain the spread of the virus, with just 3,583 cases so far. But the restrictions strangled the nearly US$50 billion tourism income stream and a sector employing millions of people.
Authorities are now stuck between reopening and waiting out the virus.
A debut flight of 150 Chinese long-stay tourists is expected to land on the island of Phuket in the coming days. Careful management of the visitors could open the door to a few hundred thousand Chinese tourists before year end.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post
With the tourists absent, Pattaya is still betting its long-term future on China. A revamped airport promises direct flights from Chinese second tier cities while the nearby Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) – Thailand’s expensive gamble on turning its eastern seaboard into a tech and logistics hub – aims to attract tens of thousands of skilled Chinese workers.
“Chinese investment in real estate and business continues to pour in – especially into the EEC,” said deputy mayor Ronakij.
Pattaya property agents are starting to report an increase in sales as pent up demand in China finds an outlet in the city’s deflated property market, which has less red tape and the promise of higher returns than in the mainland.
“The prices in Pattaya have gone down as low as 50 per cent,” said Chinese agent Anne, who only gave one name.
“I do deals through WeChat and my local agent in southwest China. A Chinese person can own real estate in Pattaya in one week as opposed to a month in China.”
PHOTO: South China Morning Post
But for businesses trying to stagger through until the tourists return, the outlook is bleak.
At the Sabai Room – a cavernous spa which offers the ‘‘world famous yogurt massage”, the signs in Chinese and English are now accompanied by Thai signs, in a bid to appeal to local customers.
“We welcome all Thai customers: convenient, clean, and wallet friendly.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.