Early June saw a string of videos and articles where the main purpose seems aimed at portraying a soon-to-be-lively-again Pattaya, with hordes of expats and travellers desperate to see bars and clubs open again. There are a few vlogs showing empty, dark streets at night from the ‘I told you so, Pattaya’s finished’ doomsday brigade too, but these are largely dismissed as being the product of bitter, negative mindsets.
From the optimists we’ve been getting videos filmed mostly in Tree Town soi Buakhao, showing Thais and the remnants of the die-hard expat community as well as a few stranded tourists knocking back dirt cheap cocktails sold ‘to take away’, made with what to some of us (who’ve lived to regret it) smells and tastes like screen wash with antifreeze. Those dreaming of the return of the good old days are encouraged to think the nightlife scene is still alive and kicking, just waiting for the green light from the government to explode back into action. Recent reports suggest this is imminent, possibly from early July.
It’s understandable that certain local business interests will be bigging up a positive picture. The local news outlets they use are bound to reflect that never-say-die attitude too. But the fact is, well before #Covid_19, a major part of Pattaya’s entertainment industry was already struggling, and has been for years. There weren’t enough Western tourists before, and what’s left of visiting Pattaya devotees will be spread thinly once they’re allowed back in. Whenever that might be. A number of expats have already left, and of those that are still in town, not a few have developed new patterns of behaviour. Less going out, more entertainment at home. Saving a considerable amount of baht in the process. Typical siege mentality, that came about over a lengthy lockdown period. A similar reaction has been monitored worldwide.
Some cheap eateries may be a bit busy right now, but the fact is most of the city’s restaurants are either dead quiet, or don’t see much point in bothering to reopen at all. Existing rent amnesties the moment they start up will be quickly cancelled by landlords. So one of the sparsely populated restaurants, or the long lines of shuttered up units, are probably a better reflection of reality than relatively busy Prime Burger or Chunky Monkey opposite Tree Town in Buakhao. Just as the microcosm of Tree Town doesn’t portray how night life across the city will look, once the bars are permitted to open up again.
Even though in Thailand the virus seems to be well under control for now, the situation around most of the West is still extremely concerning. Any easing of anti-Covid measures has seen immediate outbreaks with quickly expanding infection clusters across most European countries. Seasonal migrant labour, travelling internationally, is often a source. Brazil and the US hardly even bother to disguise the gravity of the situation in the Americas. Worse still, there are doubts about herd immunity, with recent studies suggesting antibodies after recovery may only last two or three months. Anyone still believing the hype of an effective mass-produced vaccine this year needs a reality check. Governments trying to trade off health v. economic interests could well find themselves in this no-win situation for many months, if not years. How will they react? They will do as they always do in times of international crises – retreat into their bunkers, blame the foreigners, man the barricades, encourage their nationals to stay at home, buy local produce, to holiday within their borders or as in the case or the EU, within the confines of a 27 nations zone. Politics tend to get extreme and nasty, conflicts kick off. The fate of a few stranded Westerners in SE Asia is the least of their concerns.
Continental, long-haul travel for leisure purposes will likely be discouraged or prevented for some time. Not only by anti-Covid measures but also by the marketplace. A streamlined, heavily indebted airline industry is unlikely to be able to sustain budget prices for long.
Thailand will gradually readjust and recover by turning to its domestic market and Asian neighbours to rebuild tourism. It’s been leaning that way for a long time anyway. The writing has been on the wall for the past decade. Any die-hard optimists who believe otherwise are living in cloud cuckoo land. Western influence and power is on the wane.
On the nuts and bolts, practical level, the entertainment business is going to struggle to reinvent itself, so long as the virus is hanging around and remains highly infectious. Pattaya for the majority of Westerners is first and foremost a place for ‘contact entertainment’. Friendly hostesses wearing PPE, maintaining one metre social distancing and carrying the wrong kind of gel aren’t most people’s idea of fun. Tracking apps pinpointing the date, time and duration of your visit to the local gentleman’s club might not be conducive to domestic bliss, should the wife find out. Stage shows at a distance, behind a glass screen, you can get back home without paying to travel 10,000kms for the privilege. And that scene will get cheaper in a depressed Western economy too. The use of burgeoning Tinder, Badoo and ThaiFriendly equivalents all over the world is expanding fast. People will be more likely to eat at home, entertain at home, have their food – and anything else they need – delivered to their door.
Effective palliative drugs, a safe vaccine, or the natural evolution of the virus into a less dangerous or infectious dominant strain could change the course of events. But the science currently suggests otherwise, with a deep and long lasting global recession, social unrest, international conflicts and increasing numbers of refugees constituting the most likely outcomes at this time.
There will always be the exception that proves the rule, and some quality restaurant businesses will hang in there by virtue of efficiency, low running costs and very hard work. As well as by adapting to the increasingly dominant Asian demographic, already the norm, and almost exclusively the future of Thai tourism in the medium to long term. Bars are likely to be much reduced in number over the next twelve months. And a big unknown in all this remains the government’s determination to transform the image of two key coastal resorts in particular, Pattaya and Phuket, into their Utopian dream of high class, luxury budget tourism destinations. The Covid crisis has provided the authorities with an opportunity they may not get again any time soon. Influential land and property owner resistance to change in the resorts right now is weakened, as rental income dries to a trickle. Feeble demand, whether or not the authorities maintain restrictions and pressure on bars and clubs, could lead to the effective closure of much of the Western-style night life scene in its current form, with little or no direct intervention needed. Bangkok is no admirer of farang holiday excesses, as depicted regularly by the international tabloids. Viral videos from soi 6 have done more harm than good. Thailand’s elite would shed few tears for us if we are pushed out, and they care little for the fate of the Lao/Issan/Kamen/Lanna grey economy workers who would be forced back into the factories and farms to scrape a living until a new form of tourism returns. Thai racism is alive and kicking especially in Bangkok circles, nothing has changed there.
An opinion piece only; nothing is inevitable. No one has a crystal ball. But taking as many factors into account as we have to hand today, the above predictions are hardly unrealistic. Investors in Western tourism-dependent businesses still struggling on, and unable to reinvent themselves, could do worse than start planning an exit strategy in the event of such worst case scenarios coming about. Rather than clinging to hopes of a miraculous turnaround, until it is too late…