Why are so many expats leaving Thailand?

Downfall of a vacation paradise

My name is Daniel Djukic, 38 years old. After studying communication science in Salzburg, I emigrated in 2009. The need for change and the desire for something exotic brought me to Ko Samui in Thailand. In becoming a diving instructor, I have found a fulfilling job that has allowed me to live a comfortable life over the years. I met my wife Ying in 2012. She was born on Ko Samui, worked as a German-speaking tour guide and has been running a cooking course for Thai cuisine since 2013 - a popular activity among holidaymakers. Like so many others here, we make a living from tourism.

At the end of 2019 we decided to buy a plot of land on the island with our savings and to build a house. It is quiet and secluded in the middle of a tropical jungle idyll. We wanted to live here and continue the cooking class. With the corona crisis everything turned out differently.

In the middle of ghost towns

One month after the start of construction on our house in February, Thailand, after a long period of hesitation, “closed” the borders completely. A partial lockdown followed with restrictions for many areas of the economy and society. Ko Samui was cut off from the mainland for weeks. Hotels, restaurants, tour operators and many others had to close. Since then, the island's main tourist centers have resembled ghost towns. The bar tables and rental scooters have long since gathered dust. Where thousands of holidaymakers huddled together in the evenings, there is still an eerie silence now in August.

Thailand is internationally regarded as a model student in dealing with the coronavirus: Comparatively few people who tested positive and who have died (3,345 or 58 as of August 8) reinforce the government's strict approach. Those responsible boast that there have been no more infections for over two months. The fact that comparatively shockingly little is tested (see graphic below) and that there could be a significant number of unreported cases is not publicly discussed.

The government's strict approach should be viewed particularly critically if you know Thailand's problems apart from Corona: The country has a disastrous record in the number of road deaths. With around 70 million inhabitants, there are around 17,000 road deaths each year. 58 people - i.e. the number of those who have died from or with Corona in Thailand so far - die here on peak days in road traffic alone. Many who live here would like the authorities to act just as strictly against frenzy and drink-driving as they do against a pandemic that - at least in Thailand - did not take place as such.

In the meantime, the authorities have relaxed restrictions, and in many areas life goes on normally at first glance. However, those areas that are dependent on international trade and tourism are heading for an economic crash landing: almost 22 percent of Thai GDP is directly or indirectly attributable to tourism. Since the borders are still closed to travelers, this sector has been collapsing since the end of March. Islands like Ko Samui, Phuket or Ko Chang are particularly badly affected.

The bankruptcies are increasing

According to the local tourism spokesman, over a hundred hotels were for sale on Ko Samui as early as June. The bankruptcies are increasing every day. Many tourism workers have lost their jobs and left the island. Companies have no cash flow, loans cannot be paid, rents cannot be paid. There is hardly any government support. The banks were "asked" to grant cheap loans. There are no real grants or assistance.

A spokesman for the hotel association on Phuket expects 60 percent of all hotels to go bankrupt by the end of the year. The government relies on local tourism and promotes holidays for locals in Thailand. We don't notice anything on Ko Samui. Although they have been open since the end of May, most hotels are still closed. The costs would be too high for guests who only come in the imagination of the government. Thai tourism depends on foreign tourists. In 2019 there were 38.5 million. In 2020 it will be around 6 million. Most of them were here in the first three months of the year.

At the beginning of July, the government had planned a gentle opening for selected “safe” countries from September. This would have allowed - under strict measures such as a 14-day quarantine - around a thousand tourists a day. But after the recent increase in infections in these safe countries (Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam were all up for discussion), these plans were also rejected. At the moment there is no longer even discussion about opening the borders for tourism. "Put to the file," it said this week in a broadcast by the Ministry of Tourism. The Thai chief virologist and advisor to the Ministry of Health, Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University, advises against opening it cautiously to tourists in the next six to 18 months. The danger of an outbreak is too great.

When it comes to Corona, the Thais are very disciplined. Many wear masks, even though Thailand has been officially free of corona cases for about two months and there is no mask requirement outdoors. Most support the government in handling the problem. The fear that the virus could be brought in from abroad is too great. According to a study commissioned by the government in July, allegedly 95 percent (!) Of all Thais are in favor of further closing the borders. It would be interesting to see how many would advocate stricter traffic controls and higher fines.

For my wife Ying and myself and the locals on Ko Samui, all of this is a huge burden. Everyone is directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. Even the coconut farmer has no customers because the hotels are closed. The curry seller on the roadside only sells a third because she has lost her regular customers, which include hotel employees, for example.

Ko Samui feels empty. I estimate that maybe half of the former residents have left the island. The other half are struggling with unemployment, low incomes, a lack of government support and great concern for the future. As always, the hardest hit are those who had little before. If there weren't regular fundraising campaigns by Buddhist temples and initiatives by some expats, many would go hungry. The situation of Burmese migrant workers is particularly precarious. Usually they work for starvation wages on the construction sites of luxury villas. Now they don't even have that left. Whole families stand on the brink in their hot, stuffy corrugated iron dwellings.

We ourselves are lucky that my family in Austria supports us financially. After we put our savings into our new home, we would otherwise have been penniless for about two months. At the moment we are trying to see the positive sides of this unexpectedly quiet phase of life with gardening and our three cats. But since we will not see any light at the end of the Corona tunnel in the long term, our tropical jungle idyll is visibly marked by concern and uncertainty about our future.