In almost a blink of an eye the expat scene in Thailand has changed, and that change has been downwards.
Pattaya is unrecognisable to that of 15 years ago. Back then it will truly was dedicated to the retired, single Western man. The city was all about nightlife and having fun. The image of retirees hurtling through the Sois on their Harley Davidson’s with their younger girlfriend perched on the back was pretty typical.
Walking Street, Soi 7, 8 and parts of North Pattaya (around the [email protected] resort location) were all hot spots for partying. Soi LK had yet to emerge whilst Soi Baukhao was still very popular back then too. To be honest, in my early years of living in Pattaya I was never awake before noon. Fun times for me but not sustainable! But it really is not only me that has changed – and mature – but this city has too.
But a series of events over the years have changed the Western Expat scene forever and that has always been connected with money and finances.
The days of enjoying 70+ baht to the pound are long gone and I remember after only a few years of living in Thailand the instant squeeze when it suddenly dropped to around 55 baht. Most expats thought it was going to be a blip and that it would recover, which it most certainly did not. With rates now at around 38 to 40 baht to the pound, it is hardly surprising many British retirees were forced to leave due to the pinch on their pensions. It also does not help replenish the retiree stock pool with new guys as the exchange rate proved too much.
Anyway, the subject of the exchange rates is a much discussed already and in no need of me expanding upon this thread.
What we have seen over the years now is less and less Western Expats residing on these shores. The parties not over yet though by any means, according to British Embassy statistics, there are still some 73,000 Brits residing here. But the scene has changed massively.
Remember also, with less retired expats there is less need for expat type business to serve them. This then reduces the working expat opportunitity from property to food and drink. We have absolutely seen this and I am sure will continue to see this channel decline further still.
Thailand has for many years been adapting and changing to global trends – We have seen the Russian spike in certain regions like Pattaya and Phuket, more Asians, Indians and, of course, Chinese. It has become far less reliant on the retired expat market.
The country has also quite rightly tightened visa entry and demanded proof of incomes. When I first started coming to Thailand I would send my £100 to Hull immigration and get my one year tourist visa stamp in my passport – no questions asked. All I then needed do was my 90 days border run in Cambodia to get my visa extension and voila. It is no longer this easy and like it or not, it certainly helps the country manage reduce the undesirables staying in the country.
Retirees now need to show 800,000 baht in their bank when extending their visa or a monthly income of more than 65,000 baht. There are also health insurance requirements also.
Will the recent pandemic also impact the Expat scene?
Many expats working in Thailand are reliant on the tourist market and with Thailand in lock down for some three months now, this must be hurting lots of people financially. With many business yet to properly reopen until the International borders reopen and no outbound flights of such, we are yet to know what working expats will call time on their Thailand adventure. Its reasonable to suggest we will see many head back to their domestic countries once we see the borders re open.
What we don’t know too is even when the International borders reopen who will visit Thailand in the short term. With new travel requirements, like the 100,000 insurance needed, and also uncertainty over what damage the pandemic has done to peoples travel desires; it really is fingers in the air when it comes to guessing on the tourist recovery. For working expats that need this International visitor to return it really is worrying times.
No time for doom and gloom we must all just look forward
All of us are experienced enough to know things never stay the same, they just can’t and life would also get boring. There were certainly some fun days as an expat over a decade ago, but things were always going to change as Thailand continue to develop and mature as a global destination. I am not saying Westeners cannot party and enjoy the nightlife now – pandemic to one side – but it’s not the same.
In my 15 years in Thailand I have always been very happy, the country is beautiful. Who can tire of visiting the many islands or spending a few days in the hustle of Bangkok?
Whilst the old Expat scene of Thailand may no longer be here, the new Expat scene – although a little lighter on numbers – is still as exciting as ever.
Could we see an unlikely recovery?
Before I close this article I want to leave you with one possibility to ponder. A seemingly most unlikely of scenarios, but wholly possible. The Tourism Authority of Thailand, during this pandemic, have publicly said they were perhaps too hasty in focusing on the mass tourist market opportunity, namely chasing the Chinese tourist. They have realised that putting their eggs in one basket can represent a huge risk if that market were to stop or suddenly slow down.
Over the last few months plans have been drawn up to start focusing on the more affluent tourist and start to refocus on the diminishing Western market. I see every reason, assuming global travel can fully recover from this pandemic, that this strategy can work. Thailand offers many world class features from tropical sunshine, golf, beaches to dining. If this works and the Western tourist numbers start to grow – this will, and can, kick start the ailing Western Expat scene. Most Western tourists would result in more Working Expats servicing their needs.
I see many comment online that they think Thailand’s increased costs and more difficult visa regulations could be Vietnam or the Phillipines gain, with many tourists and expats moving to these regions. I am sure there is some truth in this but I don’t believe these losses are from individuals Thailand necessarily wants anymore anyway. Thailand is developing and so to is its targeting of who they want to live and holiday here.
I had a fellow Expat friend visit both countries to see whether he could make the move. He concluded they were not a touch on Thailand and if he had to tighten his belt to remain in Thailand then he would do so. He quoted “If it means I replace a steak with a burger in the week so I can still afford to live in Thailand then that’s an easy sacrifice.”
In a paradoxical way this pandemic reset of the tourist industry in Thailand could longer term do it some favours and may actually help the Western Expat redevelopment longer term. What is not to say the whole market reemerges stronger for the experience? Strange times indeed.
The Expat scene will not be a return to circa ten years ago, but the numbers could certainly come back. We are certainly living in interesting and unpredictable times.