COVID-19: K-pop ads throw lifeline for tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand hit hard by pandemic


Bangkok tuk-tuk driver Samran Thammasa, 39, had never heard of K-pop star Jessica Jung before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now the singer’s Thai fans are helping him to survive the loss of tourist customers.

His bright green three-wheeled rickshaw has been largely vacant for over a year. Over the past few months, however, he has earned around 600 baht (US $ 19) per month running K-pop ads on his vehicle.

“The extra income might not be a lot for most people, but it is for us,” he said.

Photo: Reuters

The drivers of Bangkok’s distinctive tuk-tuks have been among the hardest hit in the pandemic devastation of Thailand’s all-important tourism industry, leaving haunting corners of the city’s empty streets complaining of a growing debt.

Samran earned around 1,500 baht per day transporting foreign tourists around Bangkok.

Almost all of that is gone as visitor numbers plummeted by 85% last year, and Thailand is yet to lift its strict border controls for months.

Unexpected help came this year from politically disgruntled and K-pop obsessed Thai youth this year when they stopped buying ads celebrating their idol’s birthdays and album launches on public transport, instead giving money from their advertising to local businesses, including tuk-tuks and street vendors. .

Over the past few months, young fans have rallied to display banners of their favorite K-pop idols on iconic vehicles for a month at a time, providing a new source of income for struggling drivers.

Samran and many others now drive their empty tuk-tuks through Bangkok with a banner of a different K-pop sensation every month, stopping for young Thai fans to take photos and use their service, often with tips. .

So far, the initiative has benefited several hundred tuk-tuk drivers. There are more than 9,000 registered tuk-tuks in Bangkok, according to government data.

The trend is rooted in last year’s anti-government protests that drew tens of thousands of students calling for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha – who first came to power in a military coup.

Many K-pop fans were protesters themselves, and last year vowed to remove huge advertising costs from billboards for Bangkok’s skytrain and underground services after public transport was shut down. to prevent students from reaching protest sites.

Fans began printing vinyl or cardboard signs and recruiting tuk-tuk drivers in garages and on the streets, channeling their advertising funds to the people who needed them most.

“It is a political expression that we do not support the capitalists. This marked a change from our competition to reserve notice boards for the skytrain and subway, but now they are tuk-tuks, ”said Pichaya Prachathomrong, 27.

Pichaya raised 18,000 baht from Thai fans of boy group Super Junior to promote member Yesung’s new album, before recruiting 13 tuk-tuks through a new booking service on the Line messaging app.

The drivers said they saw little of the government-approved relief of around 967 billion baht, as the documents were mostly accessible only through a mobile wallet app.

“By the time the money gets to us we are almost dead,” said Pairot Suktham, a 54-year-old driver who, like many others, does not have a smartphone.

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