Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha (C) and officials at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, January 29, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Anusak Laowilas

At an open door yoga studio, Chinese walk-ins are politely assigned mats at the back of the room away from other patrons. On a mass-transit train, local commuters ease to the carriage’s margins when a group of masked Chinese riders board.

A taxi driver says he now avoids eye contact and drives by when Chinese tourists hail a ride. A mega-seafood restaurant that usually caters to busloads of Chinese tour groups is darkened and closed for the first time in recent memory on a normally buzzing Saturday night.

As global nations ground flights and close their borders to Chinese travelers in protective response to the lethal and fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak, Thailand is reluctant to shut its doors to a crucial source of tourism revenues and an important diplomatic ally.

But as Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha’s government appears in the eyes of many Thais to put economic over health interests – as widely and often hotly expressed in local social media postings – political risks are rising coincident with economic ones.

Outside of China, Thailand has the third most coronavirus infections worldwide, with 19 confirmed cases as of February 2. On January 31, authorities acknowledged the first case of Chinese-to-Thai transmission, with a Bangkok taxi driver contracting the disease.

Thai officials have predictably put a brave face on the government’s response, consistently saying that the people’s safety is their top priority while even claiming to cure one Chinese coronavirus patient via a still unproven cocktail of HIV and influenza antiviral drugs.

People wearing protective facemasks ride the BTS Skytrain during their morning commute in Bangkok on February 3, 2020. Photo: AFP/ by Lillian Suwanrumpha

Over 925,000 Chinese tourists landed in Thailand between January 1-27, a 3.4% rise over the same 2019 period, according to Thai tourism ministry data. Those inbound numbers are now reportedly in free-fall with China’s imposed ban on outbound tour groups, the same data shows.

Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn told local media that if the situation does not normalize by April, Thailand could lose as much as 98 billion baht ($3.1 billion) in Chinese tourism-related revenues.

That’s twice as high as the tourism ministry’s provisional estimate of 50 billion baht ($1.52 billion), raising questions about how much tourism industry lobby groups may be overplaying the viral crisis to press the government into maintaining its so far lax position.

Even with Beijing’s ban, many are clamoring for an end to visa-on-arrival privileges for Chinese tourists, an open door policy implemented soon after Prayut’s previous junta regime seized power in a 2014 coup both to boost tourism and ingratiate itself with Beijing.

Thailand’s economy has since become highly, some say overly, dependent on Chinese tourism, with numbers rising from 4.6 million in 2014 to just under 11 million last year, accounting for nearly one-third of all global travelers and 426 billion baht (US$14.1 billion) in revenues.

Tourism now accounts for around 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), a shift from manufacturing and other industries that has exposed Thailand to Beijing’s whim on where to send government-controlled tour groups and more broadly to China’s economy.

Chinese tourists with face masks watch a traditional Thai dance at Erawan shrine, a popular spritual landmark in Bangkok on January 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/ Mladen Antonov

Inbound tourism has spurred Chinese property buying, with Thailand ranking third for purchases after the US and Australia in recent years. That’s sparked new building in Bangkok and other cities marketed specifically to Chinese buyers known for paying above local market rates.

Those Chinese purchases petered out last year as the Thai baht gained 8% vis-a-vis the US dollar – the strongest appreciation of any Asian currency in 2019 – while the Chinese yuan coincidently fell around 2% in line with Sino-US trade war worries.

Analysts suggest any measures that restrict Chinese travelers could redound on Thailand’s wider property market, as leveraged buyers walk away from their condos and other residential properties at a time as many as half a million housing units lie empty in Bangkok alone.

Others note a recent spree in hotel building in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and other cities has been driven by up-and-up projections of ever-rising Chinese tourist numbers and that a sudden and prolonged reversal could shake that highly leveraged property segment as well.

Thailand’s wider dependence on Chinese travelers and investors has arguably hamstrung the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, with Cabinet ministers openly acknowledging reluctance to impose any curbs that might offend Chinese sensibilities.

Beijing sharply criticized America’s move to halt all flights to and from China, sending a signal to Thailand and other regional countries dependent on Chinese trade and investment that it may take affront to any similar blanket bans imposed on its travelers.

That threat has sown certain divisions inside Prayut’s already fractured coalition government, with certain commercially minded camps lobbying strongly against revoking China’s visa on arrival privileges and another giving higher priority to health and security.

Thai Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul viewing closed-circuit video images in Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute in Nonthaburi outside Bangkok where patients infected with SARS-like virus are confined. Photo: AFP Forum/ Handout/Thailand Public Health Ministry

Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul’s performance has been pilloried on social media, with a clip of himself in casual wear in his bedroom apparently aimed at showing the public he is working around the clock against the disease virally panned him as being asleep on the job.

Prayut appeared to promote those gathering perceptions upon taking ill after inspecting health measures against the virus implemented at a Bangkok airport, marking the first time the ex-soldier premier has taken a sick day during nearly six consecutive years in power, says one government insider.

Anutin is Prayut’s main intra-coalition challenger for the premiership, a budding rivalry that could intensify if calls for change erupt over a sharp economic downturn or if corruption allegations targeting Prayut aired by the political opposition at an upcoming non-confidence debate hit their mark.

One point the opposition, however, won’t likely raise is Prayut’s previous government’s failure to fast-track a high-speed railroad connecting Thailand to China through neighboring Laos, a key link in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative ambitions for Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s – and the wider region’s – challenge in containing the China-borne virus would be much more acute if that land link was up and running. While few, if any, Thai officials will openly doubt the desirability of more connectivity and integration with China, “thank God that train is not on track”, says the government insider.

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