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With Ban On Foreigners, Thailand Hopes Locals Will Visit Tourist Spots

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Tourism is such a significant part of Thailand's economy. Because of the pandemic, millions in that industry have lost their jobs, and there are fears there might never be a full recovery there. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: For those who want not just to travel in a bubble but to stay in a bubble, Gauderic Harang has just the thing.

GAUDERIC HARANG: We have a jungle bubble, which is an inflated bubble which is set up on a heavy-duty platform built in the middle of our jungle offering full view on the elephants all of the night. So you're literally sleeping with the elephants.

SULLIVAN: And social distancing-plus-plus?

HARANG: And absolutely social distancing-plus-plus. The only things you're close from here is elephants, geckos and jungle noise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEPHANTS TRUMPETING)

SULLIVAN: Those elephants and a panoramic view of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos used to allow the Anantara resort to charge over $800 a night during high season. COVID, a lockdown and a three-month closure changed all that. The lockdown has been lifted but not the ban on foreign tourists. The general manager has reopened the resort anyway, hoping pent-up demand from Thais and expats living here will help stop the bleeding and the layoffs at the resort, now offering rooms for roughly half price.

HARANG: I think if you've been in lockdown for a few months in one of the big cities, coming here is like a breath of fresh air and also kind of a fresh mental restart.

SULLIVAN: Here in Thailand, with no domestic transmission for more than five weeks, he may be onto something.

UNIDENTIFIED FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Ladies and gentlemen, we have now landed at Don Mueang International Airport.

SULLIVAN: But 800 miles to the south in the capital, Bangkok, domestic flights are still half full at best, international flights still not allowed. And the tourist-dependent city is reeling with for sale or rent signs in the windows of many shuttered businesses along the main tourist thoroughfare in the Sukhumvit area - once teeming with life, now a virtual ghost town.

ANIL MALIK: My name is Anil Malik. I'm the general manager of Fraser Suites Sukhumvit, Soi 11, Bangkok.

SULLIVAN: Anil Malik, how many rooms do you have here?

MALIK: Hundred and eighty-five rooms.

SULLIVAN: And how many are occupied today?

MALIK: You are the first guest.

SULLIVAN: First guest after three months of lockdown for a hotel that used to boast occupancy rates of 85 to 90%. The hotel's bread and butter is medical tourism with a leading hospital just a block away.

MALIK: Ninety percent of them are from Middle East. And out of Middle East, UAE is the highest figure. So they account for 30 to 35% of our total business, which is now shut and will be shut for the next two months or so.

SULLIVAN: Malik, too, is hoping to woo domestic travelers and foreigners working here for short city getaways, lured in part by a government incentive to travelers that covers up to $100 per night per room. But he's under no illusions.

MALIK: For the next three months, if I just come to a break-even limit, it will be an achievement.

SULLIVAN: He's already laid off nearly a third of his staff, and he's not alone. Bill Barnett is managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a hospitality consultancy in Phuket.

BILL BARNETT: I think we're all trying to figure out where the bottom is. Honestly speaking, at least here in Thailand and probably in Asia, the worst is yet to come.

SULLIVAN: Especially when countries like Thailand and Vietnam, which has done even better containing COVID, still aren't willing to accept foreign tourists even if they want to come. Michael Piro is the chief operating officer of Indochina Capital and CEO of Wings Hotels (ph) in Vietnam.

MICHAEL PIRO: Obviously, hospitality sector's suffering because of all the lack of international arrivals. But to open up and even have the slightest chance of a second wave would be kind of catastrophic.

SULLIVAN: Both countries are now starting to allow some business travelers from other low-risk countries, such as South Korea and Japan. Tourists will have to wait, and so will the millions who depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.