Thailand previews difficult life without tourists

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Thailand looks ill-prepared for life without tourists as a fresh wave of contagion hits. The Southeast Asian country needs to wean itself off this economic crutch, but political instability stands in the way.

Gorgeous beaches, spicy food and temples draw a steady stream of travellers. The industry generated $60 billion in international tourism receipts in 2019, with each arrival spending $1,520 on average per visit, making it one of the world’s most profitable destinations. World Bank data put the industry’s total contribution to GDP at $100 billion in 2018, about one-fifth of activity.

Hopes of a sharp rebound in visitors have now been dashed. Infections began shooting up around the same time as in India, showing a similar rise. The government, run by former general Prayuth Chan-ocha, failed to secure enough vaccines; Thailand has fewer shots per capita than Myanmar or Laos, per an Oxford University study.

Reuters estimates only 1% of the population has been fully jabbed. That makes it near impossible for Bangkok to pitch travel bubbles, especially with markets like China where inoculation has also proceeded slowly, making officials wary of re-opening borders.

Finance officials have now revised down their 2021 GDP growth forecast to 2.3% from 2.8%. The central bank held the benchmark interest rate steady at 0.5% on Wednesday, which leaves a little room to ease but not much. A weak baht is a blessing because the exports of goods and services account for a whopping 60% of Thai GDP, making it one of the most export-dependent economies in the world.

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