By Jiraporn Kuhakan
PHUKET, Thailand (Reuters) – Restaurant owner and single mother Pimonta Suksaen is pinning her hopes on a revival for Thailand’s most visited island, after a turbulent, year-long struggle to manage debts and keep her business afloat during the pandemic.
Pimonta has taken to selling food like pizza on the beach in Patong, a once thriving town in Phuket, and hopes a pilot scheme launched on Thursday to lure tourists back by waiving quarantine requirements can help rescue her restaurant.
Tourism, a source of income for millions in Thailand, ground to a halt last year when the government imposed tight entry requirements to keep out COVID-19. Pimonta, nicknamed “Micky”, has been offering car rental and laundry services to try to pay off nearly 500,000 baht ($15,622) of debt.
“I was so hopeless to the point that I wanted to commit suicide because I can’t carry on anymore,” she said, tears streaming down her face
She said another Phuket restaurant owner had taken his own life.
“That was a wake up call to me,” Pimonta said. “So I decided to pick myself up and fight again.”
Phuket reopened on Thursday to tourists fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, Thailand’s biggest step so far towards rejuvenating a battered industry that drew 40 million annual visitors before the pandemic struck.
Authorities are hoping the “Phuket Sandbox” project will catch on in the coming months and plan to replicate it in other holiday hotspots.
About 400 visitors were expected on Thursday, when direct flights arrived from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore and Israel.
Pimonta said she had received no help from the government, but said she was encouraged by its decision to take a risk with the reopening.
“Even if tourist arrivals increase by only 5% to 10%, or even just 1%, I will still have hope because this is the only thing I have left,” she said.
(Writing by Jiraporn Kuhakan and Martin Petty; Editing by Toby Chopra)