Lessons learned from pilot schemes
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Lessons learned from pilot schemes

Early programmes were essential in planning the country's full reopening

Passengers wait for a RT-PCR swab test to be taken in the arrival area at Phuket airport, as the country welcomed its first group of fully vaccinated tourists without quarantine on Nov 1. AFP
Passengers wait for a RT-PCR swab test to be taken in the arrival area at Phuket airport, as the country welcomed its first group of fully vaccinated tourists without quarantine on Nov 1. AFP

After high season last year became a missed opportunity because of border closures, tourism businesses began to push the Phuket sandbox and Samui Plus pilot programmes in July this year, starting a long path to recovery.

The pilot programmes allowed Thailand to move forward and helped pave the way for the country's reopening on Nov 1.

The industry might not be able to attract the sheer volume of travellers as in the past, but mistakes the past six months have presented valuable lessons for Thai tourism as it struggles to find a way out of its worst crisis.


Phuket governor Narong Woonciew said the biggest challenge in launching the sandbox was communicating with locals, who had to be on the same page before he could address national and global communities.

"Phuket relies on tourism and suffered heavily from the Covid outbreak, but people were willing to work together to make the sandbox happen, which is the only way we could survive," he said.

The government and local authorities have to create a clear and unified message, while listening to feedback from tourists to develop policies and procedures that meet their demand, said Dirk De Cuyper, chief executive of the SET-listed S Hotels & Resorts.

"Thailand is competing with many other global destinations and we may consider ourselves to be a popular destination, but customers will not visit us if they do not understand entry requirements," Mr De Cuyper said.


The key method to generate more tourism demand from a sandbox scheme was to simplify travel regulations as much as possible, said Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, president of the southern chapter of the Thai Hotels Association (THA).

During the early stages of the Phuket sandbox, stringent safety and health measures were implemented, requiring several forms of documentation, including the Certificate of Entry system, mandatory RT-PCR testing and health insurance coverage of US$100,000 to test the reopening procedures and ensure safety.

Once the Phuket sandbox model was proven to be safe, a nationwide reopening in November could proceed with fewer travel regulations, he said.

In terms of quarantine, Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, president of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui, said Koh Samui's reopening on July 15 was a step into the unknown.

During the reopening, organisers had to listen carefully to feedback from locals while also dealing with a spike in positive tests among tourists coming to the island, he said.

In the early stages, Samui had to impose a quarantine area to guarantee the safety of locals, even though visitors would have preferred to experience a quarantine-free trip, said Mr Ratchaporn.

He said the main purpose of Samui Plus was to act as a test run for the national reopening plan.

The province quickly learned a quarantine requirement was an obstacle to improving demand, said Mr Ratchaporn.

The government and private sector had to adapt the plan over the next few months by easing the rules and costs to enhance the island's competitiveness, he said.


Mr Kongsak said inter-provincial travel restrictions such as the domestic flight ban significantly affected both domestic and international travellers who wanted to explore other parts of the country after they completed their required stay in the sandbox. The ban meant they had to use time-consuming overnight buses instead.

Moreover, travel rules for the province at that time, requiring both a vaccine certificate and a negative test result, also deterred tourists from Phuket, he said.

Phisut Sae-Khu, president of THA's eastern chapter, said establishments in Pattaya were not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages during the early stages of reopening, which was not practical for tourism.

Hotels were unable to serve alcohol and received complaints from guests, but tourists were still able to buy alcoholic drinks from convenience stores and consume them in their accommodation, said Mr Phisut.

He said drinking alcohol in a restaurant is a part of gastronomic culture among foreigners and would not cause new clusters of infections, as seen in pubs and night entertainment venues.

To preserve momentum for the reopening, alcohol sales should be allowed in Safety and Health Administration-certified hotels and restaurants to ensure a high level of safety and help operators gain more revenue, said Mr Phisut.


The main criterion for reopening in every area is mass vaccination, which should cover at least 70% of the population to assure a certain level of protection, he said.

"If vaccine distribution at major tourism destinations happened efficiently, Pattaya would not have faced a delay in the third quarter," Mr Phisut said.

He said Pattaya wanted to welcome tourists from July, similar to Phuket, but had to postpone its reopening several times because of a tepid vaccination rollout rate.

The area eventually reopened in November, along with several other tourism-reliant provinces.


Commercial flights from countries that are important sources of inbound visitors, such as Russia and India, have not fully resumed to support the flow of travellers.

Russia just allowed commercial flights to resume to Thailand and other countries on Nov 9, while India has maintained its international flight bans, except for air travel bubble destinations. Thailand does not have an air bubble arrangement with India.

Mr Phisut said demand from Indian tourists might increase if flight connections resume.

Russia is not on the list of countries afforded minimal quarantine under the "Test & Go" scheme because of its current virus situation, meaning inbound tourists have to enter via a sandbox programme, denting demand from that country, he said.


The list of low-risk countries eligible for the Test & Go scheme is sufficient to build travel confidence, said Punlop Saejew, president of the Tourism Council of Chiang Mai.

However, he said it is important that daily cases in Thailand, particularly in areas that attract tourists, be reduced until the country is recognised as a safe destination again for travellers.

Thailand being included on safe lists means travellers will not face quarantine upon return home, as many tourists from Asian nations still face mandatory quarantine after visiting Thailand, said Mr Punlop.


After the country's reopening and further relaxations on daily activities, more hotels in Bangkok have been reopened for tourists, welcoming air crews from international airlines as well as domestic meetings and seminars, said Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the THA.

The number of guests rose steadily in November, but hotels that previously received only group tours from China continued to suffer, she said.

Restoring hotel services might create more employment, but big hotels are cautiously rehiring workers for daily jobs as demand has not significantly picked up, said Mrs Marisa.

A sign on display at the Banyan Tree hotel in Phuket reminds guests to wear protective masks. Bloomberg


In lieu of foreign arrivals, the hotel business in Thailand has to rely on domestic travellers, which have become even more important during the pandemic.

"Local guests might not be the key target for room sales, but food and beverage as well as domestic Mice [meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions] are potential segments to help shore up the hotel business," she said.

Mrs Marisa said domestic tourism stimulus campaigns should be extended for the long run to increase domestic trips and spending.

"We Travel Together", a hotel subsidy scheme, and tax breaks for tourism spending in 55 second-tier provinces are necessary tools during the crisis, she said.

Mrs Marisa said expatriates and digital nomads who can work from anywhere are another source market that can support the Thai hotels industry.


She said the success of the Phuket sandbox is proof the reopening scheme is safe.

Thanks to the screening procedures, only 0.3% of international arrivals tested positive for Covid-19, said Mrs Marisa.

She said the low figure should reassure locals the reopening will not trigger a new wave of the pandemic, as travellers are fully inoculated and have to undergo two RT-PCR tests -- one before boarding and one upon arrival.

Mr Phisut said illegal migrants created more risks, as seen during a previous outbreak late last year.

The government should seriously tackle this problem and prevent new clusters from spreading as the country cannot afford any more lockdowns, he said.

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