Sensible reopening plan still lacking
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Sensible reopening plan still lacking

A passenger reacts after receiving a Covid-19 coronavirus swab test following his arrival under the Phuket Sandbox tourism scheme at Phuket International Airport. (AFP photo)
A passenger reacts after receiving a Covid-19 coronavirus swab test following his arrival under the Phuket Sandbox tourism scheme at Phuket International Airport. (AFP photo)

For countries heavily dependent on tourism, having sensible plans to reopen borders is as vital as curbing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thailand falls into this category. Before 2019, the country welcomed nearly 40 million international tourists who generated more than 2 trillion baht in revenue, equivalent to 11% GDP, according to a Bank of Thailand report. The pandemic slashed the number of foreign tourists to nearly zero.

After dealing with the health crisis in the past 21 months, it's clear that Covid-19 will likely be endemic. As the virus will not just vanish, the tourism sector needs to adapt and live with Covid in years to come.

This requires the government to revise the tourism sector. One of the challenges the government faces is to find a way to reopen the borders while ensuring the safety of tourists, local people, and business operators. Rushing to vaccinate the local population is one of the key pillars to successfully achieve the country's reopening.

But in recent months we have seen nothing even close to a decisive plan for the border reopening. Instead, the government has come up with flip-flop decisions that push people and business operators into confusion.

In mid-June, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha mentioned a reopening plan for the first time, saying his government's target was to welcome foreign visitors within the next 120 days or around mid-October this year.

Apparently, he didn't expect that the spread of the delta variant would lead to a spike in Covid-19 cases. The number of new daily cases increased from about 2,000 when he made those remarks to more than 20,000 cases two months later, with about 200 to 300 deaths a day.

Then in early September, his government rescheduled the border reopening to Oct 1 for provinces that were ready. Then it postponed the plan to mid-October again, when the Ministry of Tourism a reopening pilot in five areas such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Hua Hin, and Phetchaburi.

Last week, the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) decided to put off the date to Nov 1. This was the third postponement for Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Hua Hin -- all attributed to a vaccine shortage.

By contrast, Bangkok Governor Aswin Kwanmuang told reporters that he had not yet adopted the government's reopening date. Currently, only about 40% of Bangkok residents are fully vaccinated. The reopening requires at least 70% to ensure the safety of local people, he said.

Many people will find the government's hesitancy and flip-flops are affecting them badly.

My friends who planned to reunite with their families in Bangkok must postpone their plans. They are concerned their flight bookings might be cancelled if the government changes its plan.

Business operators, especially those in tourism, found themselves unable to plan efficiently.

Tassapon Bijleveld, executive chairman of Asia Aviation, the largest shareholder of Thai AirAsia, told the Bangkok Post the setback had affected the private sector and the nation's tourism image.

Airlines invested in service maintenance and staff recruitment to prepare for tourist arrivals based on the initial reopening timeline.

"It costs a lot for any business to restart, particularly during a liquidity crisis when every baht counts," he said.

A similar situation was observed during preparations for the Phuket Sandbox. Phuket is Thailand's first reopening pilot, which has welcomed fully inoculated tourists since July 1.

They are not required to be quarantined. But they must stay on the island for 14 days and get regular Covid-19 tests.

The Phuket Sandbox was an idea initiated by local business operators who could no longer stand the economic loss from the border shutdown. They proposed the government relieve some restrictions to attract tourists, under the condition that most Phuket residents must be vaccinated.

But when this proposal was handed to the government and bureaucrats, business operators were exposed to the government's flip-flop that delayed the launch of the Phuket Sandbox.

The strict health measures that are negative for tourism have not been lifted -- including restaurant closing in the early hours, prohibition of alcohol sales, and forcing vaccinated tourists to take expensive Covid-19 tests.

About 32,000 tourists visited Phuket between July 1 and Sept 15. But many of these visitors were not tourists.

They were Thais or foreigners arriving in Phuket to reunite with their families, or business operators and supervisors who came to arrange meetings with their staff. In terms of spending, they don't spend as much as tourists.

Gen Prayut's reopening plan is fragmented with an unclear timeframe. The shortcoming is the outcome of the government's misfiring vaccination programme from early this year.

The government vaccination programme was hit by flaws with the Mor Prom app, the late delivery of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and questionable lopsided use of Sinovac, which has proved to have been relatively less effective. While the government gears up to reopen the country, critics are still raising eyebrows.

Due to an early vaccine shortage, only 25% of the Thai population is currently fully vaccinated.

On the other hand, this strategic vaccination to boost tourism has created a backlash -- inequality in vaccination programmes. Under this, populations in the areas targeted for reopening would have more chances to be fully vaccinated.

For example, while most of the Phuket population are fully vaccinated, the majority of the rural population in the northeastern region have barely received their first shots.

The government did not have a reopening strategy in the first place, which should surprise us as tourism is vital to the economy.

Any sensible government would not think about partially reopening as Thailand has. When you think about reopening, you must think about the whole country. Who wants to visit a country that restricts tourists' travelling routes and areas to stay?

Any reopening that can help the national economy to recover must be addressed on a national level, not just in some specific areas.

In the UK, for example, the government wrote a roadmap to ease restrictions since the end of last year, including looser quarantine rules despite a high number of daily cases. That roadmap is reflected in the country's rapid vaccination programme, in which nearly 90% of adults have had at least one shot and 70% are fully vaccinated.

This effort may be linked to the government's political agenda. The UK government must prove its performance after Brexit and welcome international visitors during the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP 26, to be held in November.

Whatever the reason it is, it shows strategic thinking and preparations to deliver a plan -- something that has been absent from Thailand's Covid measures.

Singapore, which has one of the world's best vaccination rates, saw that Covid-19 would eventually become endemic.

Its government implemented a step-by-step reopening, allowing quarantine-free entry to vaccinated visitors from Germany and Brunei this month. It is also working with several countries on establishing quarantine-free travel lanes.

To revive tourism, Thailand needs a decisive plan. The more the government hesitates, the longer the delay.

Because it put insufficient effort into designing the right strategy, this means opportunities lost for people and business operators, and it will add more years for them to recover from the pandemic's economic backlash.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.

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