Thailand faces no shortage of challenges. Thai generals continue to grapple with an insurgency that has gripped the country’s south since 2004, and thousands of protesters rallied against Thai strongman Prayut Chan-o-cha just this January. On February 8, meanwhile, a Thai soldier killed 29 and injured dozens in a mass shooting. The economy is struggling as well. Over 40 percent of Thais admitted that they could barely afford food in 2018, forcing Prayut to announce a $10 billion stimulus after Thailand’s economic growth slowed even further in 2019.
The latest strain of coronavirus, the cause of an outbreak devastating China and many of its neighbors since late last year, has joined Thailand’s growing list of difficulties. Thailand has become ground zero for coronavirus’ international spread since reporting the first case outside China on January 13.
The problem has only worsened. Thailand had confirmed 19 cases of coronavirus — the most in Southeast Asia at the time — by February 2. The count of Thai cases reached 32 on February 10 and stood at 33 as of this writing, although it has been surpassed in the region by Singapore’s 50 cases. The country will risk becoming not only a victim of coronavirus but also an incubator for it in the coming weeks.
Coronavirus’ rapid jump from China to Thailand illustrates the extent to which the two countries have intertwined themselves in the field of tourism. The sector accounts for between 12 and 20 percent of Thailand’s gross domestic product and much of that income stems from China. In 2019, almost 11 million Chinese traveled to Thailand, representing the greatest share of its tourists that year at 27.6 percent. While Chinese and Thai officials have benefited from this relationship, it comes with risks.
As authorities in Beijing and their counterparts across the world restrict Chinese nationals’ travel in a bid to halt coronavirus’ advance, Thais are exercising greater caution. Many residents of Bangkok now refuse to shop at malls frequented by Chinese tourists. Nonetheless, the precipitous drop in visitors from China could represent as big a danger to Thailand as the coronavirus itself.
The Thai Tourism and Sports Ministry expects that the number of Chinese tourists in Thailand will decline to 9 million in 2020. Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, Thai officials were voicing concerns about a lack of Chinese visitors. In the first six months of 2019, the number of Chinese tourists sank by 5 percent after an accident in the Thai resort town of Phuket resulted in 47 Chinese deaths. The rise in the value of the baht, Thailand’s currency, had also made Thai tourist attractions costlier for Chinese already affected by an American trade war.
Coronavirus further strained a Thai industry already buffeted by challenges. Thai Airways, the Southeast Asian kingdom’s flag carrier, warned in October 2019 that it could go bankrupt, and Thailand had to close one of its most popular beaches last year because tourists were damaging a nearby coral reef. China’s current efforts to keep its holidaymakers from going abroad will do nothing to help Thailand reinvigorate a slowing economy all but dependent on tourism. A report by RHB Bank predicts that Thailand will lose $3.51 billion because of coronavirus and the resultant drop in tourism from China.
All the while, Thais have begun bracing themselves for the effects of twin financial and health crises. Tour guides at some of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, such as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, now wear surgical masks.
Prayut, Thailand’s divisive prime minister, has in the past few days found himself embroiled in the fallout of coronavirus’ spread. Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul had to rebut rumors that the strongman had caught the virus after Prayut became sick and canceled several events. On a wider level, Prayut has come under criticism for doing too little to combat coronavirus. For his part, the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Armed Forces has implored his people to “trust that the government is taking actions that are at international standards.”
Under Prayut’s leadership, Thailand has drawn closer to China. In a 2018 interview with Time, he described China as “the number one partner of Thailand,” adding of the two countries’ ties, “The friendship between Thailand and China has been over thousands of years.” Prior to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s 2019 visit to Bangkok, Prayut heralded Chinese-Thai relations in addition to courting Chinese investors and promoting the Thai role in the Belt and Road Initiative.
In a September meeting with senior Chinese diplomat Song Tao, Prayut voiced appreciation for China encouraging tourism to Thailand. A month earlier, Thai officials had introduced a plan to waive visas for Chinese tourists for up to a year. What effect coronavirus’ spread will have on cooperation between China and Thailand on tourism, if any, remains a question that officials in Bangkok and Beijing have yet to answer. Given Prayut’s iron grip on Thailand’s domestic and foreign policies, any drastic changes in Chinese-Thai relations would appear far off.
In the near term, the outbreak of coronavirus has forced Thais to wrestle with the consequences of their country’s dependence on Chinese tourists. In light of recent estimates that tourism from China composes 2.7 percent of Thailand’s economy, the absence of Chinese visitors has caused a decline in the value of the baht. Thai authorities have also moved to request medical certificates from Chinese arrivals, further constricting tourism and the Thai economy as a whole.
Thailand has for now refrained from resorting to the restrictions that other countries have chosen to impose on travel from China, likely recognizing Thai businesses’ ongoing need for Chinese patronage. According to Chinese journalists, their country is also receiving “moral support” from “the Thai government and immigration police,” an expression of Prayut’s affinity for China.
Though coronavirus has revealed the dangers to which Thailand has exposed itself by becoming dependent on China for economic growth and tourism, Thai officials have shown no indication that they are rethinking a relationship that has drawn their country into dual financial and health crises. Prayut and his inner circle might have concluded that, whatever the costs of reliance on China, the price of pulling away from the world power could prove far greater.
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.