Lower hopes for Phuket

Lower hopes for Phuket

Government agencies try to manage expectations for tourism reopening

Phuket prepares to reopen the island to international tourists from July 1, though a longer quarantine period was recently added.
Phuket prepares to reopen the island to international tourists from July 1, though a longer quarantine period was recently added.

The Phuket sandbox tourism scheme faces a chaotic approval process as the government is still struggling to fine-tune the balance between public health and the economy.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha reasserted that the reopening plan for the island, known as the Phuket sandbox, will start on July 1 after it was approved in principle by the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) on June 4.

However, it still requires confirmation from the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), which scheduled a meeting on June 18, before submission to the cabinet for final approval on June 22.

Yuthasak Supasorn, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor, said the last step is publication in the Royal Gazette, which should be announced in the final week of June to meet the scheme timeline.

The CCSA and CESA were established to tackle urgent tasks concerning the spread of Covid-19 and the economic impact in the country.

This agenda has already been discussed on several occasions, including in meetings with subcommittees of CCSA and the Department of Disease Control.

Following those discussions, the entry procedures saw a major revamp in recent weeks, such as the extension of the mandatory stay in Phuket from 7 days to 14 days, as well as the requirement for three Covid swab tests.

Surapong Techaruvichit, managing director at Asia Hotel Group, said the international market might gradually pick up to 30-40% of 2019 levels by the middle of next year, but a total recovery remains far off as long as the government tries to find the right balance between health and the economy.

"We have to operate the sandbox as if we are starting from zero. Some provinces trying to reopen may find local tourists shy away from their destinations," he said.

"It might take some time to build up tourism confidence."

Regarding the CCSA decision to end state quarantine (SQ) facilities for Thai returnees from July, Mr Surapong said not many SQ hotels remain as occupancy plunged following the third wave.

Some SQ hotels, like the Asia Hotel Pattaya, have transformed into "hospitels", which are projected to receive fewer guests in the coming months if the vaccine rollout continues to administer more than 200,000 doses per day, as happened this week.

"Even though we joined both the SQ and hospitel programmes in the past year, most properties could not post a profit. It just reduced the cash burn rate per month," he said.

"The best we can hope for now is domestic tourists returning in October."

Mr Yuthasak said the TAT acknowledges there is growing concern and discontent among the private sector about the additional measures for tourist destinations to reopen, which could discourage visitors in the initial stages.

He insisted the tighter screening measures are necessary, as the Public Health Ministry stressed no tourist should be infected while roaming the island.

"We should accept an influx of tourists is unlikely in the third quarter. This sandbox scheme was established as a test run, which means it is a gradual process where we determine the best practices to allow other destinations to follow suit," said Mr Yuthasak.

"It is better to be selective in the beginning rather than risk losing our reputation if tourists acquire the virus while here or at their origin country."

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