“A tattoo maker got a reduction for shop rental fee. Still, he temporarily closed the shop and went back to his hometown. At the moment, he uses his artistic skill to create handmade gifts and sell them at a market. He also took a course on online marketing and sales.”
– JJ, Tour guide, Chiang Mai
“This local tour guide has adjusted to the crisis and changed it to a brighter opportunity for him to try new things. He is now a Youtuber, sharing information about tourist attractions in Phuket and providing helpful information about the COVID-19 situation. He also will be ready for the incoming international tourists.”
– Kat, Tour guide, Phuket
Many informal workers in popular Thai tourist destinations returned to their hometowns during the pandemic, both to support family and find alternative work. However, this survival strategy, while effective, poses a challenge for tourism after COVID-19, as the destinations suffer from an immense brain drain. Workers are either happier with the new work they have found, or simply left tourism and are not planning to return.
“One interviewee used to work in a hotel but got laid off. He now owns a Thai food stall that is a more stable job than the hotel. Now he would not go back to the tourism business.”
– Jib, Tour guide, Bangkok
“We’re not sure if we’ll have enough tour guides to return to work after reopening because most of them found new jobs and are working on something else.”
– Discova, DMC
In order to better understand the types of help needed for the informal tourism supply chain, this research also consulted the private sector and civil society. When asked how they could provide support for the informal workers, three destination management companies (DMCs) reported that it would be incredibly difficult at the moment, given that they are also struggling. The DMCs are working on greatly reduced staff, hours, salaries and budget. Therefore, although they would be willing to help, for example through knowledge transfer or other forms of in-kind support, this could only be possible with funding.
“How can we get help and funding for informal workers if even the formal sector is lacking support?”
– EXO Travel, DMC
“We are happy to help informal workers by providing information on product diversification, marketing, product development and others – if we have financial support.”
– Khiri Travel, DMC
As for civil society, four NGOs reported adapting to new ways of providing necessary support to vulnerable communities during COVID-19. For example, one of the organisations – that works with food security – formerly collected food from big hotel chains and distributed it to local communities in need. After the first lockdown, as the hotels were no longer able to provide this surplus food, the organisation took the opportunity to be creative and developed a community cooking experience for the hotels’ guests – an idea that can be maintained even after tourism is back to normal. Nevertheless, the NGOs also stressed the need for more financial aid for informal workers as they have limited access to social security benefits.
One NGO interviewed promoted a universal social security system for both formal and informal employees. This was especially important for the tourism industry as workers often switch back and forth from formal and informal work with the subsequent loss of benefits. Consequently, government campaigns and support do not reach all the workers in need equally: while some employees may get support from more than one programme, others get no support at all.
“There is great potential for collaboration with tourism. For NGOs to create successful partnerships with tourism companies requires agreement, training and protocols of operations and activities.”
– Scholars of Sustenance Foundation, Bangkok
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 organisations (NGOs), European tour operators, The Embassy of Switzerland in Thailand, and Thai community development organisations.
During the discussion, the DMCs emphasised the need to retain key workers from both the formal and informal tourism supply chain, such as guides and drivers. One such strategy shared by the DMCs was to support furloughed workers to create micro-businesses that provide employment and give back to host communities. Such micro-businesses also have the potential to create new tourism products as local suppliers. Such a circular supply chain creates resiliency through less dependency.
Finally, all roundtable participants raised concerns on ensuring the safety of both tourism workers and travellers once international tourism restarts. All agreed a safe and successful reopening of international tourism requires support for furloughed formal and informal workers from now (April 2021) until next year. This is based on the assumption that meaningful international tourism in Thailand will only start to return around Q2 of 2022 (or even later). Additionally, it is assumed that the Thai vaccination programme will not be finished until next year. These assumptions reinforce the crucial need to support the tourism supply chain through programmes that include training on health standards, product development, business planning, marketing, new travel trends, and new tourist behaviour. For such programmes to be successful, it is essential they support the retention of key workers and raise capacity for the safe reopening of tourism.
Given the research findings, it can be concluded that Thai tourism can only rebound strongly through a combination of actions and strategies, which includes multisector engagement, a programme for the retention of workers, the organisation of various types of training workshops, the financial support for DMCs and NGOs. Most importantly, any actions must include the informal tourism sector. They can no longer be overlooked.
Interested parties can learn more about this research project and outcomes, and be part of the discussion, by registering for the webinar, titled “COVID-19 Impacts on The Thai Tourism Supply Chain”, taking place on May 6, 2021 03:00 PM Bangkok. Click here to register in advance for this webinar.