COVID-19 Impact on the Thai Tourism Supply Chain

BANGKOK – The impacts of COVID-19 on the tourism industry worldwide have been extensively deliberated over the past year. Solutions and insights offered are more than often targeted at airlines, hospitality, travel agencies, and tour operators, overlooking the crucial element of tourism everywhere – the informal tourism workers, including street food sellers, souvenir sellers, drivers, freelance tour guides, activity providers, artists and artisans to name a few.

The research sought feedback from informal tourism workers in Thailand, with a total of 72 interviews conducted by COVID-19 impacted tour guides in December 2020. The interviews provided an understanding of the current living conditions of the 72 interviewees. They were asked about their work and financial situation, survival strategies, what kind of support they require, and their hopes for the near future.

Results revealed that 94% of informal workers interviewed have experienced employment impacts due to the lack of international visitors; within, 86% have experienced financial hardship leading to negative effects on mental health and quality of life.

Many informal workers had to rely on their friends and families, sell personal belongings, or take on loans as the government’s domestic travel campaign were not enough or did not even reach these workers. Migrant workers had to leave the country or rely on their communities in Thailand for survival for they were not eligible for Thai Government’s social benefits.

To reopen international tourism safely and sustainably, informal workers need trainings and capacity building related to 1) health and hygiene standards and procedures, 2) community-based tourism product re-development and marketing, and 3) understanding the new needs and wants of tourists post COVID-19 for offering attractive products.

The research also discovered that there were some workers that had been able to adapt to more stable and sustainable careers in other sectors. However, this survival strategy indicated that the destinations will suffer from lack of informal workers to provide services and products post-COVID, as those who have successfully sourced for new incomes are not planning to return to the tourism industry.

DMCs and NGOs were also consulted to better understand the types of help needed for the informal tourism supply chain. DMCs admitted it being challenging as they themselves are also struggling, but they would be willing to help through knowledge transfer and other in-kind supports with sufficient funds. On the other hand, NGOs have adapted to new ways of providing necessary support to vulnerable communities, for instance creating a community cooking experience for the hotels’ guests, sustainable even post-COVID. Nonetheless, financial aid to these informal workers without access to social benefits still holds great importance.

To complete the research and confirm its findings, an industry roundtable was held on March 23, 2021, and involved all relevant stakeholders including tour guides, destination management companies (DMCs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), European tour operators, The Embassy of Switzerland in Thailand, and Thai community development organizations.

The DMCs emphasized the need to retain key workers from both the formal and informal tourism supply chain, a recommendation is supporting furloughed workers to create micro-businesses that provide employment while giving back to host communities. Finally, all roundtable participants raised concerns on ensuring the safety of both tourism workers and travelers once international tourism restarts, agreeing that support for furloughed formal and informal workers starting now on is required.

It can be concluded that Thai tourism can only rebound strongly through a combination of actions and strategies, which includes multisector engagement, a program for the retention of workers, the organization of various types of training workshops and the financial support for DMCs and NGOs. (PATA)