By Pattama Vilailert
BANGKOK(IDN) — Thailand’s famous tourist industry has been synonymous with its traditional massage parlours and treatment centres. But the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns are having a serious impact on the industry and may force foreign takeovers. The continuous lockdowns have impacted savagely on the spa and massage business. (P18) JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | TAGALOG | THAI
The Thai Spa Association president Krod Rojanastien revealed in an interview with the Manager Newspaper here, that since the pandemic’s first wave last year, when tourism traffic came almost to a halt, over 80% of spa and Thai massage businesses have been closed in line with the lockdown orders with job losses of over 200,000.
Ratchanee is a single mother of two girls. She was a Spa Manager in Pratunam in the Central Bangkok area. Before the outbreak, she earned over $1,000 a month from her fixed salary and massage services which she also provided to customers when there were not enough masseurs to cater to the influx of foreign tourist clients.
“My life has turned upside down from the closure of my spa business,” Ratchanee told IDN. “We have been closed since early 2020, (and)even at the end of the two earlier waves when the government allowed massage and spa business to open for the locals that didn’t help me to make a living.”
The main customers of her spa were tourists from Malaysia, Singapore, and India among others. With no international tourists coming into Thailand, her spa remains closed. Now, she must change her career path and leave the job she loves the most. She is forced to sell grilled pork on the sidewalk near her rented apartment in a Bangkok suburb. She is still waiting to receive some money from the government stimulus package.
Thai massage has gained popularity around the world. It is believed that it has been practiced in the kingdom for around 2,500–7,000 years. Thai massage has its unique characteristic of the combination of yoga and Thai medicine, which works with the body’s energetic pathways. Another distinguished feature of Thai massage is during the massage, customers will lie down on the floor, not on the table and they would be fully clothed.
Thai traditional massage or Nuad Thai is regarded as part of the art, science, and culture of traditional Thai healthcare and in 2019 UNESCO placed Thai massage on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In 2019, Thai tourism revenue accounted for $62 billion, while the spa and massage business earned around $900 million with a promising annual growth rate of 8%. Global Wellness Institute has estimated that Thailand is a destination for over 12.5 million tourists coming for health and wellness tourism each year. The government has introduced a policy to promote Thailand as a Spa Capital of Asia. Currently, there are over 8,600 spa and massage places all over Thailand, but how many of these would survive the pandemic is a big question.
During the series of lockdowns, some local small business owners received subsidies of 5,000 Baht (about $150) for 3 months during the first wave lockdown. But many of the spa businesses are also owned by foreigners.
To judge the impact of the pandemic on the spa/massage industry, one just needs to go to the Pratunam area adjacent to the famous shopping centres in Bangkok, which are normally crowded with tourists. Most have been closed permanently since the first wave hit Bangkok in the first quarter of 2020.
The following sums up the situation.
The smaller operators and locally owned massage shops have adapted themselves by offering massage at home service or temporary shifting to other small businesses so that they can survive. Frustrated with prolonging lockdowns from COVID-19, the massage and spa operators filed a lawsuit against the Thai government in August this year. They demanded 200-million-baht ($5.9 million) compensation. They claim that the government did not have any plans for them to continue their livelihood.
In a recent interview with Biznews, Rojanastien expressed concerns that most local operators may not be able to survive the current crisis, and with the Chinese constituting the biggest tourism market, Chinese businesspeople with deep pockets may take over these spa businesses. He claimed that he’s already noted such movements with Chinese learning to do Thai massage.
In a bid to keep the spa industry afloat, the government has allowed spa and massage places to reopen from September 1, but only to serve the local customer. Sky, who is a masseur at a massage place in Makkasan, near Pratunam says her major customers were foreign tourists from India, Malaysia, and Singapore who came shopping in Pratunam. “I have been doing massage for 12 years and earned around 500 dollars monthly before the outbreak,” she told IDN.
During three waves of COVID-19 where there were no foreign customers, she neither went back to her hometown in the northeast nor shifted her career path. She just stayed over at the shop since the Thai owner provided accommodation and some food for staff. She has relied on government stimulus packages, which have been given to those out of jobs resulting from COVID-19. She sometimes had to borrow money from loan sharks to survive. “Since this month, I can do massage again, but there are only a few customers daily. There’s less demand because local Thais also earn less during the pandemic. I may have to go back to settle in my village,” she says sadly.
Wesda owns a Thai massage shop on a small road opposite to Indra Hotel, the main shopping area of Bangkok. Her main customers were tourists from Korea, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and India. Before the outbreak, she used to earn around $3,000 a month. During the three waves of lockdowns, in the beginning, she made a living from interpreting the Thai language for some Vietnamese living in Pratunam. However, for the 2nd and 3rd waves lockdown, the Vietnamese had gone home.
“I used to have 17 masseurs, 7 permanent and 10 part-time ones. When the pandemic came most of my masseurs went back to their hometowns. Three part-time masseurs are working with me, right now,” she says. “Even though my business has suffered tremendously, I still have to pay the rent of 25,000 Bhat ($740) monthly, after the landlord gave me a 50 per cent discount along with electricity and water bills.”
Since the lockdown had been imposed, the government issued stimulus packages to provide financial assistance to businesses and Thai people. The spa and massage places were among the very first businesses that had been ordered to close. Unfortunately, they did not receive any subsidies from the government, only their workers registered under Section 39 and Section 40 of the Social Security Act 119 (SSA) would receive cash handouts of 5,000 baht ($150).
Wesda was so stressed by having to make both ends meet from her savings and borrowing from loan sharks that she was becoming suicidal. Luckily, one day in June, her husband drove her to Nakhon Pathom, a province that is 70 kilometres from Bangkok. There, she saw the light at the end of the tunnel. She started to buy coconuts from Nakhon Pathom and sell them outside her massage shop. She has been making 340 baht ($10) of profit a day, which she said: “It’s better than nothing”.
After the reopening of the business on September 1, she could provide foot massage service to local customers. “I cannot make enough money from this to cover my costs, only reopening Thailand later in the year to tourism will save me,” she says hopefully. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 October 2021]
Clollage of pictures: (left) Shuttered massage parlours in Pratunam area and Rachanee: With massage business down, Rachanee sells BBQ pork in the pavement outside her apartment. Credit: Pattama Vilailert.