Phuket's long and winding road towards recovery

Phuket's long and winding road towards recovery

Reopening is an important milestone but foreign travellers alone are not enough to save the island's hotel industry and tourism-dependent population

Kata Beach in Phuket after reopening as part of the sandbox scheme. (Photo: Dusida Worrachaddejchai)
Kata Beach in Phuket after reopening as part of the sandbox scheme. (Photo: Dusida Worrachaddejchai)

Despite tourism operators and tourism-related agencies giving their blood, sweat and tears to ensure that the Phuket sandbox scheme marked the country's reopening on July 1, their work is not yet complete. Instead, it just marks the beginning of a long road towards recovery.

As of Tuesday, the island had already welcomed 1,896 international travellers and all of them tested negative for Covid-19.

Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the Thai Hotels Association's (THA) southern chapter, said taking this first step with the sandbox was crucial in order to allow Phuket to bounce back to 80% of tourism numbers seen in 2019 or 14 million visitors by 2023, after almost two years of slowdown.

While 500-600 hotels on the island are already open, this is a far cry from the 3,000 hotels in total. Of the open hotels, 420 are certified under the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus system.

Mr Kongsak said hotels in the early stages have to make sure they take good care of guests and also ensure they stay in the province for 14 days without sneaking into other areas.

He said the occupancy rate in the third quarter was 5-10%. However, if the new outbreak can be brought under control, the occupancy rate will rise to 30% in the fourth quarter.

Due to the restoration of the international market, around 20,000 jobs have been created to serve the sandbox but the employment rate is still low as most hotels remain closed.

Approximately 50% of hotels said they will reopen in October on the condition that the number of international arrivals rebounds to 300,000-400,000 per month from 1.2 million in the pre-pandemic period.

Moreover, Mr Kongsak said booster jabs will be essential in the next six to eight months to maintain herd immunity as most of the local population in Phuket were inoculated in April.

The priority for the government should be to speed up inoculations for other parts of the country to restart domestic tourism as provinces that have direct flights to Phuket, including Bangkok and Chiang Mai, are still suffering from a record number of cases.

Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association, said provincial administration organisations have already prepared a plan to procure more vaccines for children and booster jabs in the future.

However, it is important to focus on the third quarter to prove that herd immunity works. Tourism demand will likely increase in line with the upcoming high season after the confidence of travellers is earned.

"The first 90 days of reopening is a critical period and will dictate the success of the Phuket sandbox," Mr Bhummikitti said.

FILLING THE GAP

Phuket old town began its weekend street market for the first time since April as part of a test run for the sandbox, said Don Limnanthapisit, president of a committee for Phuket's old town.

However, the number of visitors was only 5,000, down from 10,000 visitors per day before the third wave. There are still many risks such as concerns over the efficacy of available vaccines against new variants.

In order to prevent the island from suffering a new outbreak, state authorities need to step up surveillance at every checkpoint and remain on high alert, he said.

Busaba Poonsawat, 54, owner of the Mae Ting Kanom Jeen restaurant, said the most pressing issue for locals is that migrant workers cannot get vaccinated which means the government is facing an extra burden of maintaining tight checks and controls on borders, particularly land checkpoints.

While reopening will allow more international travellers to enter the province, the volume might not be the same as before as the global economy has been ravaged by the virus.

"I have lived here my entire life and I've never seen the island this empty," Ms Busaba said.

"Phuket used to be filled with foreigners, even after a catastrophic event like the 2004 tsunami. The current outbreak is nothing in comparison," she said.

DOMESTIC MARKET NEEDED

A waitress at a traditional Southern foods restaurant who requested anonymity said it had been two years since she last heard from regular guests from Ireland who usually brought her bottles of wine before the pandemic began.

It is unclear whether these familiar guests will return this year but she is hopeful that the reopening will change her fortune.

"The Phuket sandbox is helping boost travel sentiment by assuring the world that the province is safe to visit, however, grassroots operators will not benefit as international arrivals tend to stay in luxury hotels. Surfing is not usually an activity on their agenda," said Werawat Kuru, a 30-year-old surf trainer at PK Surf Training on Kata Beach.

Local travellers, mostly from Bangkok, are the key target market for the surf shop thanks to a new viral trend and support from the hotel subsidy scheme -- We Travel Together -- which is making it easier for them to travel at an affordable price.

He said the shop offered services to around just 20-30 guests each day in April, which is considered the peak period for domestic tourism.

Before Covid-19, all 22 surf shops near the beach were crowded and there was a shortage of trainers available to serve tourists.

"The rapid rollout of domestic vaccinations is the only effective way to restart domestic tourism in Phuket," Mr Werawat said.

Wassana Seang U-thai, 61, a coconut juice vendor at Naiyang Beach who used to offer a massage service to tourists said tourism demand from the sandbox may not help the whole island but only popular beach areas like Patong and Rawai.

Naiyang Beach mostly served the domestic market, so vaccinated locals are the only potential group that can help them generate income.

"If tourists are already vaccinated, it means they are safe," Ms Wassana said. "Everyone has to survive despite the risk of infection as death from hunger is more likely than Covid-19."

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