Test & Go receives cautious welcome
The tourism reopening scheme returns from Tuesday, but its critics say there are still unresolved flaws in the system
After being disrupted by the fifth wave of coronavirus for more than a month, the quarantine-free Test & Go scheme for vaccinated tourists is reinstated on Tuesday.
However, as the Omicron threat is still rocking the country with an average of 8,000 cases per day, the resurrection of Test & Go this time comes with additional conditions that pose even more challenges to the recovery of tourism, as the old problems haven't been resolved.
Besides technical hiccups which caused headaches for both tourists and tourism operators, the main problems for reopening schemes, whether sandboxes or Test & Go, have been with inconsistent policies and complicated procedures.
Thanet Supornsahasrungsi, acting president of the Chon Buri Tourism Council, said that in every reopening attempt, each province's private sector had to process at least three to four steps before nominating itself to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), mostly due to health safety and risk management.
But Mr Thanet believes safety procedures are more manageable compared to other hurdles, such as the decentralised structures whereby each provincial authority can mandate different policies, which result in confusion for both tourism operators and travellers.
"Besides on-and-off reopening over the past few months, there are always inconsistencies in our regulations," said Mr Thanet. "For example, even though the CCSA lifted the alcohol ban in restaurants for blue zone provinces late last year, provincial governors and communicable disease committees can have different orders based on each situation. Or when we wanted to regain sandbox status last month as a safety net if Test & Go was shelved again, we had to seek another approval from the provincial governor to restart the whole process despite already doing it last year."
His remark referred to the situation in the second half of 2021 when the battered tourism operators in major destinations were burdened with excessive tasks.
Those eager to reopen had to struggle to nominate their provinces in the sandbox programme as this was the only mechanism at that time that opened the doors to inbound travellers without quarantine.
Hotels also had to share responsibility in health screening measures by ensuring that all guests followed the rules accordingly.
However, after being included in the sandbox programme for a short period, the government then introduced the Test & Go scheme in November, which came with more relaxations, meaning the sandbox status they fought hard to obtain in the previous few months was almost a waste of time.
Moreover, when the country got stuck with the Omicron variant in December, and new Test & Go registrations were suspended, there was just Phuket that was allowed to continue its sandbox status, while other areas have had to restart the nomination process with the CCSA one by one.
Krod Rojanastien, president of the Thai Spa Association and head of the Hua Hin sandbox programme, said the private sectors had to go back to square one every time the policy changed.
"There were also inconsistencies in many considerations. For example, the selective criteria for sandbox areas, which was sometimes based on the number of infections but sometimes not," he said.
"The provinces that have a unified voice always have the advantage in such a system. Provincial authorities that understand the importance of the tourism sector will mostly help private operators get through all the complicated processes and strive for accomplishment. Unfortunately, not every province can have such support."
Mr Thanet said all the rules regarding the country's reopening should be centralised under a stern voice from the government to avoid fragmentation, as some local authorities are too afraid to take risks by interpreting CCSA orders on their own.
Meanwhile, Mr Krod said Thailand lacked one single platform for tourist tracking.
Each province has to turn to its own system as long as tourists still encounter problems with the centre like MorChana.
"To maintain safety for locals, a more effective geofencing app that can alert users' location is necessary, particularly after the new Test & Go mandates all travellers take the RT-PCR test on the fifth day at a hotel and wait for the result, which is an additional burden for hotels," Mr Krod said.
He said many countries have run a single system since the beginning without problems, such as Taiwan. If Thailand reopened with more travellers in the future, effective controls with good technology will be decisive for successful handling of the virus.
"The government should not twist and turn the reopening programme once again. If we want to make Covid-19 endemic, we should start learning to live with it now," Mr Krod said.