Rule flip-flop deflating Phuket plan
CCSA says sandbox is only for foreigners
As vaccinations gather pace in many countries, the global tourism industry is starting to see a glimmer of hope as leading destinations start to gradually remove mandatory quarantine and ease travel regulations.
However, these attempts are no beds of roses as some countries have yet to find the right formula as seen in the prelude to the Phuket sandbox scheme slated for next month.
One of the new regulations introduced this week has sparked another controversy yet again as the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) wants to make the scheme exclusive to international tourists and prohibit local residents and diplomats from taking part in quarantine-free entry through Phuket.
"What's the purpose of having the Phuket sandbox if Thais cannot benefit from this programme? This is a basic right that they should get just like foreign visitors," said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association.
A sub-meeting of the CCSA on Wednesday stressed that Thais and diplomats returning from abroad cannot take part in Phuket sandbox, even if they are inoculated.
Mr Bhummikitti said all tourism-related associations in the province will submit a petition to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha today, hoping the government will reverse its decision in a general meeting of CCSA on Friday.
"We did not raise this issue because we want to reap benefits from guests, however, this rule is obviously not fair for Thais. We understand the government is worried about containing the virus, which is still a challenge, and the fact that local people can escape the island before 14 days much more easily but preventive measures should be adopted rather than excluding them altogether," he said.
Yuthasak Supasorn, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor, said the purpose of the Phuket sandbox since the start has been to stimulate tourism through international visitors.
Therefore, the CCSA, which consists of several authorities, decided to make it clear that only international visitors will be included.
"The quarantine-free entry is only available to those without permanent residency in Thailand. Thai citizens can enter the country but have to follow the existing rules, which requires them to lodge in alternative state quarantine for 14 days," he said.
Before the CCSA announced the new rule, the private sector in the tourism industry estimated that Phuket sandbox in the first few months would lose its appeal to leisure tourists due to stringent screening measures that have been introduced.
The most likely group in the early months will be Thais and foreigners who want to return home.
NEW DAYS, NEW RULES
Besides this latest rift in the past few weeks, the reopening initiative has consistently experienced setbacks due to clashes between the local tourism industry in dire need of visitors and medical experts who have voiced concern over a possible new wave triggered by new arrivals.
In the end, health and safety won the dispute as the sub-meeting of the CCSA on Wednesday confirmed it will take precautionary measures towards reopening in July, requiring three negative RT-PCR tests during a 14-day mandatory stay on the island and a tracking system for tourists.
Besides the number of documents that tourists have to prepare beforehand -- vaccine certificates, Covid-19 certificates and health insurance -- they must book hotels with SHA Plus certification (Thailand Safety and Health Administration) which has over 300 properties already enrolled in the programme.
"We will not fight with the authorities over the number of days of compulsory stay which was increased from 7 to 14 days, even if these rules deteriorate travel sentiment. We have retreated to just letting the Phuket sandbox get started as planned. If they say strict rules are for the sake of public safety, let's give it a try," said Mr Bhummikitti.
He said there are a number of confirmed international flights to Phuket, starting with an inaugural flight from Singapore Airlines on July 1 while Thai Airways, Emirates and Qatar Airways will follow suit.
However, more reliable numbers will be seen in the fourth quarter as tourists will prefer to book hotels in that period when they are more confident that rules will be ironed out by then.
He added that every component in the province is ready, particularly herd immunity as over 62% of the local population has already received two doses of Sinovac and 10% have received one dose of AstraZeneca.
The provincial government also has plans to procure its own vaccine as a third booster this year after the government is allowing them to purchase vaccines for local use.
Mr Yuthasak said the standard operating procedures of Phuket sandbox will need two stamps from the CCSA meeting chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Friday and a cabinet approval next week to officially get underway.