Almost two years ago the pandemic shut down the world and Thailand was no exception as the country quickly closed its borders. Tourists went home and for the longest time, the island of Phuket was almost completely deserted. But now tourists have started to find their way back to the holiday paradise – and Swedish business owners in the area hope and believe that the worst is behind them, Aftonbladet writes.
The numbers speak for themselves and according to the Bangkok Post, 39.6 million tourists visited Thailand in 2018 while only 106,117 tourists visited the country between January and October this year.
To Aftonbladet, restaurant owner Kent Holmgren says it has been a disaster for the tourism industry. “It was like going from 100 to zero. It was a full stop,” he says.
Kent Holmgren has run the Karlssons restaurant in Patong, Phuket for many years and says that many people lost their jobs when Thailand shut its borders and several locals left the tourist industry and went back to their hometowns. Even foreign business owners were no exception and many closed their businesses.
“The only ones who were left here were those who had nothing else. Like me. I have not lived in Sweden for 33 years. What am I going to do there?”, he says and adds:
“It’s been like a long vacation. We could not do much else. We could only open for take away but it was not worth it and almost all the staff went home anyway.”
On the same street as Karlsson’s restaurant, just a stone’s throw away from Patong beach, Swedish Patric Vallgårda runs Harry’s restaurant. He took over the business in March 2020, just a few weeks before everything closed down. During the lockdown, they renovated the restaurant and when they opened the doors, the conditions were different, to say the least.
“For two months, we were almost the only ones open throughout Patong,” Patric Vallgårda says. He describes the past 1.5 years as really dead and the restaurant maybe had an average of two guests a day.
But since 1 November when Thailand allowed tourists from several countries back through the so-called ‘test and go’ travel scheme which only included one day of quarantine, there is suddenly life again in Phuket.
“A lot has happened but only in the last few weeks. The other day I had four large tables with Swedish families. To see small white-haired children here again is great and it feels like the worst is behind us,” Kent Holmgren says.
Patric Vallgårda shares the same enthusiasm. “Now the tourists are starting to come and finally you can start smiling again,” he says. When asked if he believes that the positive trend with more tourists will continue, he says, “I hope so. I think so. The country can not afford to close again.”
“If there are lockdowns again, many people here will go completely bankrupt. Even now, many businesses are not coming back to Phuket. This season has to be okay,” he adds.
Both Kent Holmgren and Patric Vallgårda have tried their best to help their employees during the long quiet months and have even paid them salaries when the restaurants have been closed.
“We send a small amount every month to help them. As an entrepreneur, you do not have to do that, but most of our employees are like family or close friends to us. Some who lost their jobs also received a small amount of support from the government for a few months, Kent Holmgren says.
Kent Holmgren adds that at the moment it’s almost as it was before in Patong. “ We are very lucky here as it is so concentrated for tourists. Right now it is probably the best tourist resort town in all of Asia as most places are open again. And especially in terms of price, it is incredible to come here now.”
Patric Vallgårda agrees. “There is nothing to complain about at the moment if you don’t like overly crowded tourist places. Everything is open in principle, but it closes earlier. From a tourist perspective, it’s amazingly beautiful compared to how it usually is.”
Although Thailand recently suspended the ‘test and go’ travel scheme and travelers now have to enter the country through the Phuket Sandbox scheme to avoid 7 to 10 days of quarantine, Kent Holmgren hopes that the tourists will continue to come even though they have to stay 7 days in Phuket before being allowed to travel to other parts of the country. He does worry people will cancel their holiday and he feels sorry for other tourist places in Thailand who might get a lot of cancellations if the suspension is not reversed in the coming future.
“I think many will cancel their trips because of this. It can ruin an entire season. For us, in Phuket, it is not so alarming when we go back to the sandbox entry scheme. It may even lead to an upswing for Phuket and more people will come here instead of going to other places.”
“But I feel sorry for people in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country. They will probably get very few people there,” Kent Holmgren adds.