After months of absence, the waterfalls, night markets and hostels of Chiang Mai are once again filling up with a familiar sight: backpackers.
While Thailand was once a paradise for budget travelers, Covid-19 has devastated the tourism industry, which is only now beginning to take tentative steps towards reopening.
People familiar with Chiang Mai in its tourist heyday will still find the city relatively calm, but those in the travel industry see glimmers of hope after two years of despair.
“We can see the number slowly increasing,” said Palakorn Viriya, owner of the Deejai Backpackers hostel. Speaking to the Guardian from the hostel lobby, he described the previous two years as a “struggle”.
Palakorn said before Covid he usually had 40-60 guests each night, but now he gets around 10 each night. However, this is a clear improvement compared to 2020 and 2021.
“The last guest left the hostel in July 2020, then there was nothing until November 2021,” when Thailand eased entry restrictions for vaccinated visitors, he said. .
Palakorn says he was lucky because he owns the property, but estimates up to 80% of his competitors have been forced to close, mostly because they couldn’t pay rent without customers.
“Now the customer is more than last year but still not really that much compared to before Covid,” said a Thai tour guide and driver who goes by the name Vincent.
Vincent said before Covid hit he had customers every day, but now he only has customers two or three times a week, and many are still domestic travellers. During the peak of the Covid waves, he had no customers and was forced to return to work in his family’s rice mill.
According to data from the country’s tourism ministry, nearly 204,000 tourists arrived in Thailand in the month of February. January arrivals dipped to 134,000 due to an Omicron wave, while December saw around 230,000. The previous 11 months combined saw less than 200,000.
But the recent uptick still pales in comparison to the 39.8 million international tourists who graced Thailand’s beaches, mountains and cities in 2019 before the pandemic, contributing 21.9% of Thailand’s total GDP.
Yet both Palakorn and Vincent believe the industry has turned the corner. “I see the city getting busier and busier,” Palakorn said.
“I think the tourism situation will absolutely improve next year,” Vincent said.
Deejai held a pool party on March 6, her first event in two years, and Palakorn says there will be more to come, although there are still complications. He estimates that around 250 people attended, a “successful” turnout. All participants underwent rapid tests before being admitted, with two people testing positive and being sent home.
Israeli tourist Or walked down the street in Chiang Mai’s Old Town, carrying a revealing backpack half his size. He politely declined persistent offers from tuk-tuk drivers, in disbelief that he would walk in the scorching heat. The 22-year-old was taking time off to travel after compulsory military service, a common tradition in Israel.
He arrived in Thailand in mid-February, after a few months in India.
“In Thailand, I was shocked because compared to India, there were a large number of tourists,” he said. He said the highlight of his trip so far was a motorbike ride through a village of monks in the mountains of Chiang Mai.
He was also planning to go to a traditional Thai cooking class, a very popular tourist attraction in Chiang Mai.
“I find that in Chiang Mai they love cooking and food and I want to do more,” he said.
But ever-changing regulations and onerous requirements may keep some tourists at bay. In Thailand, fully vaccinated travelers must apply online for a Thai Pass before entering, which requires vaccination, health insurance, flight reservations and a pre-booked hotel and a PCR test for the first night. It costs hundreds of dollars, which must be spent before the traveler has even been allowed to enter.
Some tourism experts have urged Thailand to scrap the Thai Pass and the first night of quarantine.
“Thailand is now at a crossroads. There is no choice but to open up and get rid of Test & Go,” Marisa Sukosol, president of the Thailand Hotels Association, said earlier this month.
In neighboring Cambodia, fully vaccinated tourists simply need to take a rapid test on arrival and are free to leave if negative. Ou plans to visit Cambodia next, and said the process was “much easier”.
Palakorn would like to see Thailand’s policies change as well, or risk losing budget travelers to places like Cambodia.
“I want to see, when you get to the airport you just show your vaccine and that’s it,” he said.