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Tourists Returning to Thailand Find Closed Bars, Empty Streets

The country’s attempt to jump-start tourism may be hurt by the absence of the very businesses foreign visitors come for.
Tourists wearing face masks while visiting the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. 

Tourists wearing face masks while visiting the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. 

Photographer: Peerapon Boonyakiat/Getty Images

In downtown Bangkok’s Patpong area, most evenings are quiet. Before the pandemic, it was one of the world’s most notorious red-light districts, attracting foreign tourists to its many bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors. With the tourism industry decimated by two years of Covid-19, most of the street’s businesses are locked, with “Closed” signs in the windows. At the area’s night bazaar—for decades the place to buy Red Bull T-shirts, Thai boxing pants, and fake Rolex watches—the vendors are gone.

Thailand wants to get them back. Tourism accounted for one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product before the pandemic, with almost 40 million foreign tourists generating more than $60 billion in 2019. In early February, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha’s government began allowing vaccinated travelers to enter quarantine-free.