Surat Thani -- led by Koh Samui -- is looking forward to brighter prospects in the upcoming high season as it prepares to emulate Phuket by scrapping quarantine, and plans to receive domestic travellers from next month.
However, demand from international tourists may not pick up immediately while the whole of Thailand is still overwhelmed by Covid-19, said Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, president of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui.
Significant changes to the reopening plan were discussed this week after the Samui Plus scheme's three islands -- Samui, Phangan and Koh Tao -- experienced lukewarm demand over the past two months when compared to the Phuket Sandbox.
Under the new regulation, which is expected to take effect on Oct 1, inoculated tourists need just one day in any hotel certified with the SHA Plus standard while waiting for their RT-PCR test result.
They can roam the three islands freely without a mandatory sealed route, which is more relaxed than the existing rules which require them to stay at pricey alternative quarantine hotels for three days and then travel only within Koh Samui on arranged tours from day 4-7, following which they can travel to the other two islands from day seven while escorted by tour operators.
Mr Ratchaporn said provincial authorities and the private sector also agreed to reduce the cost of medical expenses from 15,000 baht per head to 8,000 baht, which is the same level as Phuket, in order to accommodate tourists with a more affordable price.
The new price means the minimum spending per head will be 20,000-25,000 baht, which includes accommodation.
"The programme that started on July 15 did not produce fruitful results," Mr Ratchaporn said. "We need a makeover to become a quarantine-free destination with fewer restrictions to attract more demand and let more tourism operators benefit from the reopening."
As of Sept 7, Samui saw 628 travellers joining Samui Plus, while Koh Phangan and Koh Tao have had 43 and 26 tourists, respectively.
The province will also propose a 7+7 extension programme starting from Samui, which would enable tourists to travel to Phuket or other designated areas after seven days.
Mr Ratchaporn said that while more places such as Pattaya, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai were preparing their standard operating procedures, they should learn from Samui Plus that any restrictions, such as mandatory quarantine, can create a tremendous negative impact on the market.
However, to run the project without quarantine they need to build better local understanding and convince communities to view things in the same way.
"We can proceed with changes this time because the tourism operators assured the local health authority and communities that more hotels will be converted to hospitels. In case of emergency, the whole sandbox area will have at least 500 beds for Covid-19 patients, up from 300 beds currently," he said. "Over 75% of our residents are also vaccinated which is the important factor, but many provinces cannot achieve the same."
Mr Ratchaporn said the new approach will also pave the way for chartered flights from Russia and Israel to Surat Thani International Airport. Tourists will be transferred from the airport to hotels on the island via arranged transport.
He said big tour operators, such as Pegas Touristik, are ready to arrange chartered flights with around 1,000 tourists per month from November if the new regulations are settled, including air traffic permission between Thailand and Russia, which should be solved by then.
"This high season should be a good start for Surat Thani as the domestic stimulus campaign will start soon. We hope to secure 70% of the domestic guests back, and the rest of the 30% from international travellers, with 30-40% of hotels reopened," he said.
Besides the three islands, Surat Thani is interested in adding more areas to the sandbox, such as Khao Sok National Park.