Little backing for govt's plan to reopen
Islands lukewarm on 'Phuket Model' amid fear of second wave of virus
published : 30 Aug 2020 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
The government is mobilising efforts to reopen Phuket as the first model for Thailand to welcome back foreign tourists in October in a bid to bring back jobs associated with tourism and generate more income.
However, the efforts of the government are creating doubts about the health system's readiness to curb a potential second domestic wave of Covid-19.
The Bangkok Post spoke to business people and the authorities involved in preparations to reopen the tourist island.
As the government has gradually eased Covid-19 restrictions, the tourism sector has high hopes for a good recovery. Phuket and Samui of Surat Thani -- two of the most famous resort islands in the country -- are eager to reopen to foreign tourists to help stimulate local economies hard hit by the pandemic. The "Phuket Model" has been proposed to reopen the province in a "new normal" manner.
Tourism and Transport Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said Phuket would be a pilot area where foreign tourists are allowed to travel.
The plan suggests that foreign tourists be allowed to stay in a designated area of a 1km radius on the island for 14 days before they can travel in other areas in the province if they test negative for the virus.
If they want to visit other provinces, they will have to stay in quarantine there for another seven days.
It is expected that foreign tourists will be allowed to visit Thailand from Oct 1 onwards and about 100,000 of them will likely come back.
The Phuket Model will be adopted in six regions across the country if it is given the green light by the government.
Deep concern remains
President of the Phuket Tourist Association Sarayuth Mallum said the private sector in the province has proposed its own "4Ts", instead of the Phuket Model, to welcome back foreign tourists.
The 4Ts are Target (setting clear targets for tourist numbers), Testing (screening and testing for the virus at the airport), Tracing (using an application to keep track of every tourist in real time) and Treatment (sufficient health workers and medicine to treat Covid-19 patients).
Mr Sarayuth said reopening Phuket did not mean allowing general foreign tourists in.
"We will allow only foreigners who used to stay in Phuket and now want to come back and those keen on staying for a long time. We intend to accept only a small group, not everyone," he said.
He voiced his disagreement with the government's Phuket Model, saying Phuket must protect and serve local people first.
"The private sector wants to accept only a small number of foreign tourists who must be screened and tested until it is certain that they are completely free from the virus," he said.
Mayor of Muang Patong Chalermlak Kebsap said: "We must admit that we need to allow foreign tourists in but most of the people here are not very confident in the government's measures.
"We are not sure if they will be strictly implemented but we must be open. People are having a tough time. Businesses have shut doors. We do not want a lot of money; we just want to get by and be healthy."
Thanusak Phungdet, president of the Phuket Chamber of Commerce, agreed with the mayor, saying Phuket was ready to welcome back tourists but its idea of reopening was different than that of the tourism and sports minister.
"We want foreigners to travel to Thailand to help generate income, but we disagree with the idea of allowing them to travel in Phuket or Thailand for just 5-7 days," he said.
The Phuket chamber of commerce chief suggested the first group of foreigners allowed in over October should be those with a plan to stay on the island for a long time, including foreign students, medical tourists and those with families or businesses in the country.
Leader of the Phuket old town community Don Limnanthapisit said the people of Phuket are concerned that certain VIP tourists would not conform to the government's measures.
The Bangkok Post also asked local people about the Phuket Model and found most did not believe the model would benefit them.
They said the model would only benefit hotels and tourists. They also said they thought reopening under the model would risk more infections.
Deputy Governor of Phuket Pichet Panapong said the province had prepared measures so it can serve as a pilot province to welcome back foreign tourists under the Alternative Local State Quarantine system.
Foreigners travelling to Phuket must receive permission to enter the kingdom from the Thai embassy in their country of origin and stay in quarantine for 14 days at designated places.
They must test negative for Covid-19 72 hours prior to travel and have a US$100,000 (3.1 million baht) health insurance plan.
Director of Vachira Phuket Hospital Chalermphong Sukhonthaphon said if the province was open for foreigners, the risk of Covid-19 infection among tourists would be about five in 1,000.
The Public Health Ministry has conducted an incident response drill on a possible fresh wave of infections, he said.
Do not leave Samui behind
In Samui, the tourism situation is not much different from Phuket. Now there are almost no tourists on the once-bustling island.
Charoenphong Charoensuk, 37, a rental van operator in Samui, said the rental vehicle business had been severely affected by the pandemic as no tourists had come to Samui since the virus struck.
"It will be a long time before tourism here returns to the normal level, despite talk of a vaccine. Even in the next 1-2 years, I do not think tourism here will fully recover.
"At least, we want the government to allow foreign tourists to visit Samui. Investors should also be allowed here to help keep us afloat," Mr Charoenphong said.
Surat Thani Chamber of Commerce vice-president Seni Phuwasetthawon said he supported the government's plan to welcome back foreign tourists in October although he believed it won't help reverse the plunge in tourism in his province.
"I think we will only get foreigners who run businesses or have a job in Thailand from this policy, but the real tourists will not come because they don't want to be in quarantine for 14 days, so it won't help much in terms of boosting the economy," he said.
However, Mr Seni said it could be a good starting point for the country to restore confidence in the safety of leisure travel and create a positive image of Thailand to the world.
"I agree with the PM that if nothing is done, things will only get worse," Mr Seni said.
"We may not be able to reap what we sow immediately, but when things return to normal I think we will be one step ahead of other countries."
Wait for foreign tourists
Pimporn Thongsuk, an executive of Fair House Beach Resort and Hotel on Samui, said the island has no tourists -- Thai or foreign -- and entrepreneurs have been affected by the outbreak despite government measures to help tourists pay for their hotel rooms.
"I have not reopened my businesses yet because it would not be worth the operating costs," she said.
"There are just a few Thai tourists choosing Samui as a destination for their vacations and most of them stay only for one or two nights."
Ms Pimporn said she believes the only way to improve the situation is to allow foreign tourists in.
"The return of foreign tourists is essential for the island because more than 90% of our customers before the pandemic were foreigners," she said.
"If the ban on foreign visitors is prolonged, many hotels will have to shut down permanently and a large number of employees will be laid off."
Ms Pimporn said local entrepreneurs also still have to rely on ferries and airlines that provide direct flights to Samui.
The Samui airport's flight monopoly makes fares expensive, even during this period when the government is promoting domestic tourism, Ms Pimporn said.
She called on the government to help, saying expensive air tickets prevent tourists from visiting the island even though some hotels have remained open.
"One of our hopes is the construction of a 17km bridge to connect the mainland in Khanom district, Nakhon Si Thammarat, to Samui island. This is the shortest way to reach Samui," she said.
"Hotels with combined rooms of 40,000 are pinning their hopes on the bridge. Now we [the local businesses and people] are raising a petition for the province to build the bridge."
Tourism Association of Koh Samui president Worasit Phong-amphan said easing the travel ban is vital for the island's tourism sector to survive and will help revive many businesses.
Mr Worasit said he will represent tourism entrepreneurs on Koh Samui at the meeting with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) tomorrow.
"We have prepared our plan for the return of foreign tourists to present to the CCSA on Monday and we hope they will give us a green light," he said.