“Before the COVID crisis, I used to sell fish at 100 THB (US$3) per kilo, but now even at 50 THB (US$1.5) per kilo, I can’t sell them. As there are no tourists, my livelihood is very much affected,” says fisherman Thammanoon Boonsa.
Koh Tao, a tiny island on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand, is one of the top diving destinations in the world. Each year, half a million tourists visit this stunning place. But the good days seem like a distant memory. Koh Tao and other islands have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, dramatically affecting tourism and related businesses.
Many small tourist boat operators have lost their jobs. A recent socio-economic impact assessment of COVID-19 in Koh Tao, by UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative Project, reveals that COVID-19 has had a drastic impact on small, and medium sized businesses, as well as on female migrant workers. It also indicates that 90 percent of boat operators have lost their jobs.
On the island boats lie moored and desolate. Lamenting on the situation, one of the small boat operators in Koh Tao, Thavee Buthchui says; “For the past five months, we are suffering a lot. Before COVID-19, we earned 2,000 THB (US$64) a day. Now, most of the boat operators who are employed have lost their jobs and for locals like us, we are self-employed and have our own boats, but are unable to earn money.”
Through the Biodiversity Finance Initiative, (BIOFIN), UNDP Thailand and with support from the Raks Thai Foundation and Koh Tao municipality, 200 registered tourist boat operators were selected to participate in a crowd funding campaign, ‘Koh Tao, Better Together’. This is based on cash for work, where the resources collected will be provided to the boat operators as a daily wage for their work on marine debris collection.
BIOFIN Thailand aims to raise US$60,000 over three months, using the digital financial platform of Krung Thai Bank (KTB). So far, KTB has confirmed its support and provided 30 percent of the amount. As part of this campaign, boat operators will also be engaged in short-term employment opportunities, to work on marine debris collection and beach cleaning. This will help reduce trash in the ocean and aid in creating a pristine island, when the country opens for tourism.
The socio-economic assessment also indicates that the municipal government in Koh Tao is facing a budget deficit, due to unplanned emergency expenses, needed to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. “No cash flow, no income, and the unprecedented shock have already generated stress, and we are trying to help local entrepreneurs stay on the right track,” says Chaiyan Thurasakul, the mayor of Koh Tao Tambon. “In the meantime, we are coming up with a stimulus package on domestic tourism. We are supporting the drive for cleanliness, safety and comfort to appeal to tourists, while at the same time also working to revive natural beauty.”
Apart from Koh Tao, UNDP, along with the National Economic and Social Development Council, Thai Chamber of Commerce, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and the Phuket Chamber of Commerce, is undertaking a dedicated socio-economic impact assessment on the tourism sector and its supply chain in Phuket island. Phuket is one of the most visited islands in Thailand, and 56 percent of the labour force works in tourism.
This analysis will benefit from, and be guided by, a national assessment. Its findings will represent an important reference for other tourism destinations facing similar challenges. Based on the findings, UNDP will also pilot a small-scale entrepreneurship skills development project, to support future employment opportunities, for people most affected by the crisis. In addition to the analysis of the impact, recommendations for recovery include the re-orientation of Phuket’s tourism sector, as well as more sustainable and diversified approaches to the province’s development.
These assessments will guide future programmatic and policy advocacy engagement by UNDP and the UN system. The impact of COVID-19 can become a source of many lessons to define new development approaches that are based on an improved balance between economic prosperity and conservation of natural resources.
Story and photos by UNDP Thailand