Paradise islands ready to rebound
After a year-and-a-half of pandemic closures, surfing spots and isles around Thailand are hoping to soon reopen to international tourists, writes Dusida Worrachaddejchai
Thailand's shattered tourism industry set its sights on reopening destinations to foreign travellers in the coming months, assuming various destinations can reach 70% vaccination rates and complete Phuket-style procedures.
After relying on domestic tourists for more than a year, many coastline destinations are awaiting a new flow of holidaymakers who want to hit the waves.
Taweeroj Eawpanich, co-founder of Better Surf Thailand, a surf school on Pakarang Beach, said local travellers flocked to Khao Lak last year after surfing went viral across the internet.
Hotels in Khao Lak had to shift their focus to the domestic market, offering affordable prices, which helped build their reputation among local guests.
Pakarang Beach -- or Memories Beach, named after an iconic bar and restaurant on the site -- is Khao Lak's most famous surf destination out of around 20.
Five years ago, the beach was a hidden gem frequented by foreign surfers, mostly from Europe, who rented surfboards and spent around 2,000-3,000 baht per day, Mr Taweeroj said.
Even though domestic visitors spend less than foreigners, they are able to visit more frequently, which can make up for the shortfall.
Typical guests are women and millennials aged from 25 to 32, he said.
The global surf market is projected to increase in value from US$2.7 billion in 2020 to $3.1 billion by 2026, according to the "Surfing -- Global Market Trajectory and Analytics" report by Global Industry Analysts, a market research company.
The Asia-Pacific market is expected to reach $600 million, with millennials and women the key drivers behind the growing popularity of this water sport in Vietnam, the Maldives and Thailand.
Four surf schools on Pakarang Beach have a quota for their classes to ensure the quality of teaching and create a surf culture that promotes awareness of natural resources and the local community.
To manage the flow of visitors to the beach, which can handle 300-400 people per day, three-hour surfing courses need to be pre-booked at a cost of 900-1,500 baht.
"I was born in Phangnga and experienced the 2004 tsunami. That tragedy made people start to stereotype my home as a ghost town," Mr Taweeroj said.
"Hopefully our work in developing Khao Lak as a surf town will help ease the tragic past and attract people to visit the city to support locals."
He said operators opt for value-added products by partnering with local hotels to offer bundled packages instead of cutting prices.
They also teamed up with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to launch campaigns that encourage surfers to visit local restaurants.
In terms of the reopening plan for foreigners, Mr Taweeroj said it will take at least six months for nearby destinations to benefit from the Phuket sandbox.
He said travel sentiment in Phangnga will revive if the province can successfully reopen, following a devastating slowdown in the domestic market because of the prolonged outbreak.
DIVE RIGHT IN
Worapong Wongsuwan, vice-president of the Koh Tao Tourism Association, said the island is well-known as a favourite destination for divers thanks to its abundant natural resources and lack of pollution.
Koh Tao offers scuba training courses certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), the diver organisation with 128,000 members.
Mr Worapong said another reason travellers prefer the island is they can learn to dive cheaply, with a 3-4 day course for open water certification averaging 10,000 baht.
Before the pandemic, Koh Tao welcomed around 200,000 international tourists per year, mostly from Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, the US and Canada, he said.
Tourism revenues hit 4 billion baht prior to Covid-19, before crashing to 200 million last year.
Mr Worapong said diving accounted for 25-30% of total revenue, as Thais and foreigners who visited Koh Tao for these activities would spend 2,000-2,500 baht per day with an average stay of 10 nights. Non-diving visitors on average spent 1,500 baht per day and stayed for 4-5 nights.
At present, 15-20% of around 30 dive centres on the island are temporarily closed, while the rest still serve domestic travellers who arrive for staycations.
The July 15 launch of the Samui Plus model, which consists of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, gave islanders hope for a recovery.
He said Koh Tao's tourism revenue was less than 100 million baht in the first six months this year.
However, the second half looks promising, with tourism operators expecting 580 million baht in receipts from 4,000 international travellers, said Mr Worapong.
The island needs to step up health and safety measures in compliance with provincial standard operating procedures as well as encourage operators to apply for a Safety and Health Administration Plus certificate, he said.
"Koh Tao has a police station with 40-50 personnel to enforce laws and protect everyone here," Mr Worapong said.
"After the 2014 incident where tourists were murdered here, we have to provide reassurances the island is safe to win the trust of tourists."
Covid-19 is far from over, though it will eventually become an annual illness similar to the flu where everyone will have to adopt new practices, said Siripannee Supratya, environmental journalist and administrator of the digitalay Facebook page that focuses on diving and environment-related stories.
In the future, divers will prefer to buy rather than rent personal equipment that goes in or around their mouths such as regulators, buoyancy compensator devices and masks, to ensure high levels of hygiene, she said.
Buddy checks and pre-dive safety checks will be conducted using social distancing, while diving operators and dive boats will have to clean more frequently and enhance disinfecting protocols during trips, said Ms Siripannee.
"Most divers were already environmentally aware prior to the global pandemic," she said.
On a larger scale, the government has to mandate a decisive policy on the ecological carrying capacity of marine attractions and other natural sites to ensure a sustainable tourism recovery, said Ms Siripannee.
"This outbreak could show how nature heals itself when not disturbed by humans, but we have to find solutions to avoid mass tourism and manage natural resources when travel resumes," she said.
Most of the natural attractions in Thailand remain intact during the outbreak, providing a rare opportunity for researchers to evaluate ecosystems' sustainability.
Ms Siripannee said data from observations of animal behaviour and the amount of garbage during the pandemic should be collected and marked as indicators to limit human interaction with nature in the future.
To disperse the flow of tourists from natural sites, man-made attractions that highlight the culture and history of each community can draw visitors and help distribute income to other areas, she said.
Apart from sun, sea and sand, the pilot reopening scheme in Phuket has the potential to showcase its history as an old mining town, offer gastronomic experiences at Michelin-starred restaurants, and present vibrant street art on the island, said Ms Siripannee.