Though Chiang Mai is suffering one of the worst spikes of Covid-19 cases in the third wave of infections that began in the capital city’s night entertainment venues, now is not the time to be pointing fingers, said the president of the Tourism Council of Chiang Mai (TCCM), Punlop Saejew.
The fresh wave of infections that began in Bangkok’s Thong Lor area could not have come at a worse time, as the Songkran holiday period is one of the most profitable periods for tourism business operators.
When the pandemic started last year, people cancelled holiday festivities as the country went into lockdown and restricted access to foreign tourists.
Earlier in the year, hopes of a recovery flickered when the government announced the country was finally on its way to a reopening, starting with six major tourism destinations.
Phuket is set to be the first province to roll out the red carpet to foreign tourists in July, while Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phangnga, Pattaya and Koh Samui will follow suit in October.
The announcements, however, were made right before the resurgence of Covid-19 took the country by storm last week, when health authorities found out the latest outbreak involved the fast-spreading variant of the virus that was first detected in the United Kingdom.
“[The news] struck right before Songkran, when everyone was planning to celebrate traditional New Year,” Mr Punlop said. “No one wanted this to happen.”
Locals had hoped this year’s Songkran holiday period would be a turning point for their businesses, especially after last year’s losses. Their hopes, however, were dashed as authorities moved to ban public events, including the renowned water-splashing parties, which attract large crowds. “But we must adapt. The priority is to contain the virus,” he said.
Chiang Mai, known as the Rose of the North, has recorded over 600 infections since the third wave began, with the province reporting its highest single-day spike in cases on Sunday.
The surge has sent businesses into a tailspin, dashing any hopes of a quick recovery across the Chiang Mai tourism sector.
Mr Punlop said the plan to reopen the province to international visitors in October may be derailed if the authorities can’t flatten the curve of infections fast enough — although he said it might not make much of a difference, as Chiang Mai’s tourism sector has hit rock bottom.
“That said, we won’t blame [the patrons] of bars and pubs as the cause of transmission, it’s not as though they plotted this crisis,” he said.
A native of Chiang Mai, Mr Punlop knows every nook and cranny of the province’s tourism industry. He graduated with a business management degree before receiving his master’s degree from Chiang Mai University. He also attended a leadership course at Ohio University in the United States.
His father carved a niche in the business in 1982 shuttling tourists from Malaysia and Singapore on tour buses to Chiang Mai. Later, his family opened a car rental company before expanding to hotel bookings.
At the urging of senior friends in the TCCM, Mr Punlop ran as council president in July last year and won, having secured the backing of nine tourism organisations.
Looking down the road, Mr Punlop said hopes for a tourism revival rest with how fast the vaccine is administered to people.
If 70% of the population can be inoculated this year, the industry could bounce back before the year is out, he said.
In the meantime, the domestic tourists are the only bet.
With many Thais having families and/or a second residence in Chiang Mai, many had hoped to visit over the Songkran break.
However, Mr Punlop said, they will reconsider their holiday plans if they have to quarantine for 14 days. Those who came primarily for night entertainment also won’t come, as such venues had been closed since April 9.
“Songkran will be well over by the time these places reopen,” he said.
“It’s a matter of choosing public health and safety over businesses at this point.”
According to Mr Punlop, TCCM is prioritising three priority tasks during the pandemic, namely improving crisis management, tackling tourism problems and preparing the manpower, infrastructure and know-how needed to diversify the province’s tourism offerings.
To achieve those ends, the TCCM president urged the government to provide more aid to help the province’s struggling business operators, which should be tailored to meet their demands in different seasons.
“Chiang Mai has many untapped tourism potential. We need to attract other visitors, beyond the usual sight-seeing kind,” he said, before adding the province has what it takes to attract more serious investments.
Mr Punlop said the tourism operators might have to liaise other businesses, such as real estate, agriculture and/or hospitality firms, to find out ways to fill the void in income left by the absence of foreign tourists.
For now, Mr Punlop said the TCCM will work closely with the province’s chamber of commerce to attract a wider range of tourists, including investors who wanted to see the region’s farming potential. Tourism firms can act as a match-maker for investors, he said.
Universities can also offer academic support for the tour, said Mr Punlop, who is also deputy chairman of the chamber of commerce.
There is a wide array of local businesses with high investment appeal, which include flower farms which can supply aromatherapy producers. “I see the current downturn as a challenge, as change is inevitable,” he said.