'Ghost island' Phuket hunkers down in tourist-free Thailand
Phuket's go-go dancers are playing on their phones in empty bars on deserted streets as the Thai tourist island is ravaged by the ravages of the pandemic and there are few signs of an early recovery.
The pools are empty, chairs piled high in abandoned restaurants, and the normally crowded beaches are so quiet that even rare species of sea turtles come to nest.
Last year, more than nine million tourists visited Phuket, the kingdom's second most popular travel destination after Bangkok.
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Today almost all 3,000 hotels on the island are closed and the capital Patong has become a "ghost town," says local tycoon Preechawut Keesin, who owns five nightclubs and around 600 hotel rooms.
Thailand has so far remained relatively unscathed from the global outbreak, with around 3,600 confirmed cases and just a few dozen deaths.
But the kingdom's decision to focus on fighting the virus has dealt a brutal blow to the economy, which is expected to shrink 7 to 9 percent this year and put millions out of work.
"My boss wants to help the employees keep their jobs, but I don't think we can survive after the year is over," sighs Jantima Tongsrijern, manager of the Pum Pui Bar.
- "Worse than tsunami" -
In normal times, 80 percent of the island's profits come from tourism, a sector that employs more than 300,000 people.
Tens of thousands of those who lost their jobs have returned to their home provinces.
Life is difficult for those who endure.
Some have accepted huge wage cuts while others have no choice but to join the long lines at the food distribution centers or scrape together an income where they can.
Bar owner Orathai Sidel says she made 100,000 baht ($ 3,200) a month during the high season.
Since her company is a victim of the pandemic, she is now selling desserts from a street cart and making just $ 3 a day to help meet her children's school fees.
"We're just struggling to survive," says street vendor Poi, who was fired from the restaurant where she used to work in June.
Phuket was supposed to welcome Thailand's first foreign tourists since April in a cautious kingdom experiment, but their arrival is repeatedly being pushed back.
And the two-week mandatory quarantine and high price tag - several thousand dollars per person - mean this is a niche market.
"We need to focus on developing local customers and individual travelers rather than mass tourism," says Preechawut Keesin.
Prior to the pandemic, local vacationers made up just 30 percent of visitors to Phuket, prompting the local tourism industry to rethink their business model.
"We don't expect a return to normal for three years," predicts Kongsak Khoopongsakorn.
"The situation is much worse than it was after the 2004 tsunami."
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