The pandemic’s impact went beyond elephants, of course. In Chiang Mai’s Old Town, many shops, restaurants and hotels were still shuttered during my recent visit, but the open-air Night Bazaar overwhelmed me with options. I filled up on papaya salad, grilled sea bass, mango sticky rice and barbecued prawns, before wandering into the Mairom clothing store.
“All my clients were foreign visitors,” said the shop’s owner, Ya Kanya. “That business disappeared with Covid, so I set up an online store through Facebook. I’ve just reopened the shop, but there’s still less than half the number of tourists.”
Hotels have had to adapt, too. Anantara Resort is a 15-minute walk from the Old Town, built around the old British consulate overlooking the Ping River, with avenues of trees and a swimming pool that rubs shoulders with lotus ponds.
“Many staff permanently left the industry during the pandemic,” said Mandy Itthikaiwan, Anantara’s marketing manager. “So we have trained a new cohort, and focused on domestic and regional tourist markets. Rates have come down, but people are only booking two months in advance, rather than six. The whole thing has been challenging, but it’s brought in fresh ideas and innovation. We’re putting an even bigger focus on food, for example.”
Thailand as a whole is undergoing a metamorphosis. Many will still consider it first and foremost a backpackers’ destination – captured memorably in the 1996 novel The Beach and Danny Boyle’s subsequent big-screen adaptation – but overtourism and overdevelopment have taken their toll and forced the hand of authorities. The most famous filming location from the movie was shut in 2018 to give the surrounding reef a chance to recover. It has reopened, but with tighter rules on visitor numbers.
The Thai government is keen to shift from mass tourism towards fewer, higher-spending visitors, and the Covid hiatus unintentionally aided that transition. Many lower-end businesses were forced to close down, and some of Thailand’s largest markets – China, for example – are still absent. Those tourists that have returned are, on average, spending more money (saved during two years without holidays) and they often have higher expectations.