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Thailand Economy Will Take Hit As Coronavirus Fears Grow

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn our attention to another major story, the coronavirus outbreak. After China, Southeast Asia has been hardest hit by the virus, with Thailand and Vietnam both reporting multiple cases. Residents fear more might come. Michael Sullivan has this report.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: This is the departure hall at Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport. It's busy, it's loud, and a lot of the passengers are Chinese. There are more than 220 flights a day between China and Thailand - the No. 1 international destination for Chinese tourists. Until a few days ago, about 10 of those flights each day came from Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. Those flights have now been suspended. But a lot of people here are still worried.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: At the domestic departure terminal on the other side of the airport, at least a third of the passengers waiting to board are wearing masks. Twenty-two-year-old student Chiayamas Saengchai (ph) thinks Thailand should suspend even more flights.

CHIAYAMAS SAENGCHAI: Today, we have many Chinese tourists come in Thailand. So I think it's maybe get worse. The more people, the more risk.

SULLIVAN: And even though the government claims the risk is minimal, many passengers say they don't believe it - or government claims of fewer than a dozen cases in Thailand so far.

MEI TZUJOU: I think it is already bigger than SARS.

SULLIVAN: That's 22-year-old Mei Tzujou (ph), a visitor from Taiwan, referring to the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that killed almost 800 people. China downplayed that outbreak, and she thinks it suppressed information about this one, too. And she doesn't trust the Thai government, either.

TZUJOU: I do worry that the Thai government depends on China too much and their tourism too much. It might cause problems like the viruses spreading.

SULLIVAN: Tourism accounts for roughly 12% of Thailand's GDP, and Chinese tourists are the biggest single source of tourism revenue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SULLIVAN: And a big source of tourism revenue for Vietnam, too. Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam (ph) has assured citizens precautions have been taken. The central city of Danang, though, is especially popular and worrisome. State media reports the last flight from Wuhan arrived in Danang just four days ago. But like Thailand, Vietnam is also reluctant to curtail flights from other cities - for now, at least.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SULLIVAN: Some countries in the region are starting to tighten things up, though. I'm standing in Sop Ruak in northern Thailand, looking across the Mekong River into neighboring Laos and the Kings Romans Casino complex. Now, normally, on a Sunday afternoon, there would be hundreds of Chinese tourists lined up to go across the river to Laos to gamble. Today, there are none.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

SULLIVAN: Secretive Laos isn't letting them in, nor has it said anything about its decision or about any coronavirus cases there. But it, like Thailand and Vietnam, will feel the economic impact of China's decision to ban tour groups from travelling abroad beginning Monday. Thailand's already anemic economy will probably take the biggest hit, but an outbreak would bite even deeper.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.