Phuket reopening still in the works

Phuket reopening still in the works

As Covid-19 cases surge, the government is pressing ahead with its goal to welcome vaccinated foreigners by July, but some operators see it as impossible

Screening of passengers on arrival at Phuket airport is part of the measures to contain the spread of the pandemic's third wave in Thailand. (Photo by Achadthaya Chuenniran)
Screening of passengers on arrival at Phuket airport is part of the measures to contain the spread of the pandemic's third wave in Thailand. (Photo by Achadthaya Chuenniran)

Despite daily infections reaching a record high of 2,070 cases in Thailand last week, the country is determined to reopen to international tourists starting with Phuket on July 1.

The Tourism and Sports Ministry on Friday committed to its plan to welcome vaccinated foreign tourists without quarantine requirements.

However, that leaves only two months to prepare and it will require a massive effort to ensure the plan can proceed.

Tourism operators are demanding clarification from the government about entry regulations, international flights administration, travel bubble agreements, and Covid-19 vaccination efforts.

Previous timelines predicted 70% of the population would need to be inoculated by June, but that projection now seems hopelessly optimistic.

Reflecting that lack of progress, some tourism operators remain uncertain about the benefits of reopening when Thailand has yet to inoculate much its population.

Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn said the government is working on creating standard operating procedures as the country races to nail down rules in order to meet its reopening deadline.

The third wave of the pandemic that began in Thailand in April has damaged the prospects for international arrivals, with the TAT now projecting 3-4 million visitors, down from 6.5 million previously.

"We will submit a complete plan to the Centre for Economic Situation Administration to receive approval by the end of April, then start taking more concrete action. In the third quarter, this 'Phuket Sandbox' scheme should attract at least 120,000 international arrivals, generating 11 billion baht," said Mr Yuthasak.

Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association, said the commitment from the tourism sector in the province has been unwavering despite the third wave, but it needs more clarification and updates from the government.

"Vaccines are just one of many components to make a reopening successful. We still require endorsement from other related authorities such as the Public Health and Foreign Affairs ministries, particularly about whom Thailand has initiated travel agreements with," he said. "This is a crucial factor as it's hard to bring in visitors if they are required to enter quarantine upon their return home."

Suksit Suvunditkul, chief executive of Deevana Hotels and Resorts, said most hotels are closing their properties until the end of this year as there is no sign of new bookings.

At present, 85% of hotels in Phuket remain closed. Of the 2,000 hotels in the province, only 200-300 properties are actively listed on travel websites.

The closure rate remains high because operators are not confident about the ongoing situation. Moreover, a fourth wave may erupt anytime if people don't have immunity against the virus, said Mr Suksit.

"A fruitful outcome is unlikely as there are too many uncertainties and tourism operators do not want to take a risk with an unpredictable situation," he said.

Belated bubbles

Travel exchanges without compulsory quarantine, known as travel bubbles, have started to take shape in a few countries.

One such arrangement is the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble, which launched on April 19 as both countries have kept outbreaks under control. The flag carriers of both nations, Qantas and Air New Zealand, plan to add more cross-border flights in response to high demand, which is considered a positive sign for the recovery of the aviation industry.

Suttipong Kongpool, director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand (CAAT), said the third wave has lowered the number of semi-commercial flights to Thailand this month.

However, if Phuket goes ahead with its reopening and has a clear plan to facilitate entry for inoculated tourists without quarantine, it should help revive international traffic again, said Mr Suttipong.

He said CAAT examined time slots at Phuket airport and found there are sufficient spots for more direct flights. To spur flights, the operator of Phuket airport offered a 50% reduction on parking and landing fees.

However, international airlines that want to book slots may have to wait for a clearer set of regulations before planning flights under the sandbox scheme, said Mr Suttipong.

While private airlines have started enrolling in International Air Transport Association's (IATA) travel pass, a digital certificate for inoculated passengers, CAAT won't rush to join that initiative, he said.

"Even if we don't adopt IATA's travel pass, it should not affect Phuket reopening. We can implement an entry process manually with our own system, which will be decided later," said Mr Suttipong.

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