Welcome to your prison vacation?
In four days, Phuket is set to officially reopen under the much heralded "Phuket sandbox" -- a tourism management test case for reviving the tourism industry. The restarting comes after 15 months of hiatus and welcomes back fully vaccinated tourists from low to medium-risk countries to its sun-kissed beaches and glitzy nightlife districts.
But what awaits visitors when they arrive from their Covid-induced slumber? Certainly not crowded streets full of happy tourists and thriving businesses. Instead, they'll be met with draconian rules, restrictions, and closed shops -- indeed, a far cry from the Phuket of old.
But the road to recovery must start somewhere and there is no better time than now.
Between July to September, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) expects 129,000 foreign tourists and 50,000 domestic tourists to visit the island, buoyed by the success of mass vaccination campaigns, especially in the US and EU where infections have dropped to lows seen early in the pandemic.
For comparison's sake, Phuket averaged 9.29 million visitors per year or 25,452 a day prior to Covid-19. It may take years to see such numbers again but the sandbox presents a good opportunity to ensure Phuket remains a top travel destination and provide a model for the rest of the country over the coming months.
However, Thailand should not bank on its "glorious days of old" reputation to draw in tourists. The pandemic has changed people's priorities, expectations and behaviour. For example, a recent poll by the International Air Transport Association (Iata) revealed that 84% of people would decide against travel to a destination that required quarantine.
Fortunately, the Phuket sandbox compromised and expanded the quarantine space from a small hotel room to the entire island. Yet it also presents regulations that would make any tourist think twice about visiting.
The first absurdity is the requirement to be tested at least three times during a 14-day trip (upon arrival, day six, and again on day 13).
Given these tourists are already vaccinated and have to provide a Covid-negative test result prior to arrival, how many will be happy to be swabbed over and over during their vacation?
And let's not forget, they'll have to pay 2,800-3500 baht each time for this privilege depending on where they go. At a time when people have lost jobs and livelihoods and seen their savings reduced, is this not putting an unnecessary burden on travellers?
If that wasn't bad enough, visitors will also have to accept being tracked at all times through apps, location wristbands, and facial recognition technology that feeds your data to the newly-built EOC Phuket Sandbox command centre.
While well intentioned, we all know the risks of such data ending up in the wrong hands and being misused. Would you feel comfortable being on vacation knowing someone is watching your every step? These are a few issues that require a serious rethink, especially since other countries have reopened and require just a negative test to enter. With such restrictions, it's hard not to see how a vacation to Phuket can be mistaken for a prison sentence in paradise.
As reopening will take place at a time when infections are rising with an unsettling uptick in the Delta variant, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) also announced that if more than 90 cases are reported per week in Phuket, it would further restrict activities or even scrap the scheme entirely if bed capacity surpasses 80%.
What if this happens just before your trip begins or just began? Will you get a refund or be whisked away to quarantine? Would you want a vacation with this constant fear? With news of bed shortages already being reported in Bangkok, there's a serious risk of the Delta variant causing similar havoc on Phuket's shores.
Yet the Phuket sandbox will be a warm-up for the Thai tourism industry to prepare. As the summer months are the low season for Phuket, reopening presents an opportunity to study tourist response and re-evaluate onerous conditions.
The Western market is expected to pick up in December as people escape winter, so rules and regulations should be eased to attract them since other major tourism source markets to Phuket -- mainly China and India -- will be unable to shore up numbers this year.
Moreover, tourists from other Asian nations will remain a trickle since they also face similar quarantine requirements at home, which will discourage them to travel internationally.
While it is understandable that strict measures are needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it's also important to remember that people want to feel welcome and not treated as caged animals.
Hopefully, many of these questions will be answered over the coming weeks and rules made less restrictive sooner rather than later.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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