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Amid Coronavirsus Some Want Thai Government To Ban Chinese Tourists


And we are reporting on another big story this morning. The coronavirus - it has been spreading and so has anti-Chinese sentiment, even among some of China's friends and neighbors in the region, many of whom have banned flights and visitors to and from the mainland. Tourism-dependent Thailand has so far resisted this, even though there are at least 32 confirmed cases in that country. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's 10:00 in the morning, and I'm standing in Sop Ruak in northern Thailand in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet. And I'm staring out at a beautiful picture of the Mekong River right in front of me now. From this vantage point, at this time of day, there are usually hundreds of Chinese tourists here snapping photos.

But today, there is absolutely no one here, and that's because a week ago, the Chinese government banned all outbound travel groups from China in an effort to contain the coronavirus. Now, that's made some people in this tourist town happy, but it's made others unhappy.

PANG PEERADA: We don't hate Chinese, but we have to hate coronavirus.

SULLIVAN: Pang Peerada has good reason to hate the virus. The manager of the Serene Hotel here on the Mekong says business has taken a beating since last week's Chinese ban on outbound tours.

PEERADA: Actually, the group - cancel for two group and a big group, around 50% of the hotel.

SULLIVAN: They were taking half your rooms and now they've canceled.

PEERADA: Yes. Right.

SULLIVAN: She says she still gets the occasional individual Chinese couple, who she says are still more than welcome.



SULLIVAN: Sop Ruak's 7-Eleven is ground zero for Chinese tourists who stop in this town. Manager Siriporn Wongchai reckons about 80% of her 1,500 customers a day were Chinese before the group ban. Today, there's just a few Chinese, plus some Spaniards and Thais.

SIRIPORN WONGCHAI: (Through interpreter) I'm not afraid, and none of my staff are afraid or have gotten sick because we wear masks and use gel.

SULLIVAN: But she says it'd still be a good idea if the Chinese stopped coming altogether for now.

WONGCHAI: (Through interpreter) I feel the Chinese should stay home until the virus is over. We have nobody sick here in our town, but if they keep coming, we could have soon. I don't want anyone from my team getting sick or their families.

SULLIVAN: It's a sentiment that's been growing all over Asia in the past few weeks. Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians and South Koreans have signed petitions demanding that Chinese visitors be turned back. But Thailand has so far resisted banning flights to and visitors from the mainland, as Vietnam, Australia and the U.S. have done.

Down the street from the 7-Eleven, beautician Som Somnasak, who's washing a customer's hair, is adamant.

SOM SOMNASAK: No. No Chinese.

SULLIVAN: Before the virus, she'd cut Chinese customer's hair. But now she says, if they come, she just makes up excuses, like when a group came to try to get their hair colored the other day.

SOMNASAK: (Through interpreter) I just told them I don't have the color they want or their second choice or their third, until they gave up and left.

SULLIVAN: In the tourist city of Chiang Mai, a restaurant owner put a sign in her window that was even more blunt - we apologize; we are not accepting Chinese customers. Some social media posts were even more xenophobic. Even the local pharmacist here in Sop Ruak is apprehensive, with more than two dozen confirmed cases in Thailand so far.

GITTIPONG WONGFUN: For me, at first, for - honestly, I am scared.

SULLIVAN: But less scared, says Gittipong Wongfun, now that he's more prepared and masked whenever a Chinese customer comes in. But he, too, thinks it's time for the government to put safety over profit and ban Chinese visitors for now. The government insists it's got everything under control. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Sop Ruak, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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