Gearing up for a muted Songkran
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Gearing up for a muted Songkran

Tourism operators welcome easing of Covid curbs

Water spectacular: Silom Road overflows with revellers on the first day of the Songkran festival in 2018. The government has signalled the festival will come back next month with strict measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Water spectacular: Silom Road overflows with revellers on the first day of the Songkran festival in 2018. The government has signalled the festival will come back next month with strict measures to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Tourism operators and workers in major tourist provinces believe the government's proposed plan to allow the annual Songkran festival to go ahead next month could help revitalise the economy even as some remain concerned about health safety.

After the government declared April 10-15 as this year's Songkran holidays and signalled the annual Songkran festival may be observed as normal as long as social distancing rules and other Covid-19 measures are respected, provinces such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen, Pattaya of Chon Buri and Phuket where the Songkran festival is widely known have stepped up their planning with but with caution.

The scope of activities to be enjoyed during the festival, such as water throwing, concerts and foam parties, will be decided by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) tomorrow. Songkran revellers will know what they can do and can't do.

The Bangkok Post talked to business owners and workers in the tourism sector in these provinces, asking them what they think about the government's plan.

Mixed feelings on Khao San Road

Kittipong Boonpakorn, an employee of a restaurant on Khao San Road, said he's okay if Songkran celebrations are held on Khao San Road as it means more customers will come. However he did not support water splashing and the use of talcum powder as these activities pose Covid-19 transmission risks.

"The activities that will prompt participants to take off face masks or pose risks such as water splashing and the use of talcum powder should be banned. I think this year we should celebrate the festival in a traditional Thai way. Instead of creating water fights, we should hold traditional rituals such as bathing Buddha statues, paying homage to ancestors, and paying respect to elders," he said.

Prapai Phoothongpan, owner of a coffee shop, said some vendors do not support the idea as they believe the risks are too great.

"I don't think the event should be held this year. In my view, the situation is still not safe enough for mass gatherings. What would happen if someone gets infected from joining the event here. Khao San's reputation would be ruined. We might be able to earn big money for 3-4 days, but after that nobody would come. If I were the government, I would not take the risk," Ms Prapai said.

Many businesses on the road report custom are starting to pick up after the government lifted the ban on sales of alcoholic beverages in pubs and restaurants and she's afraid the momentum could stall if Khao San Road becomes the source of new infections.

"The government announced that it plans to fully reopen the country in October. I think we can wait for that, but at the moment it's too soon to organise a big event with so many people. The government must think carefully about this move," Ms Prapai said.

Chiang Mai braces for crowds Director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand Chiang Mai Office Pakkanan Winijchai offered a positive outlook on the province's tourism prospects during Songkran especially when flight schedules return to normal.

Most tourists in Chiang Mai are still Thais people and tourism here would follow the "new normal" guidelines, she said. People are already gearing up for Songkran, according to the TAT director. "Over 50% of room occupancy is expected throughout the six-day-long festival," she said. More foreign tourists were expected in Chiang Mai at the end of the year if vaccine passports were used, said Ms Phakkanant.

Khon Kaen aims for the outskirts


Safety first: Wan Moonsap, a restaurant owner on Khao San Road, does not want the Songkran festivities to be held in the tourist-friendly street next month as the Covid-19 situation is still too risky.

President of the Khon Kaen Tourism Business Association, Khemchart Somjaiwong voiced his agreement with the government's idea to allow Songkran celebrations to take place next month, but warned that public health measures need to be maintained.

Regarding the province's famous Songkran celebrations on Khao Niao Road, Mr Khemchart said he had proposed to the municipal mayor that fairs and other tourism activities be arranged during the Songkran festival to spread revenue from Songkran to other areas in the province.

He also suggested celebrations on Khao Niao Road should be scaled down with more activities held on minor roads and in the outskirts of the province.

He hoped Songkran would generate about 50-60 million baht, or half that of the previous years before the pandemic. "During the first wave of Covid-19, hotels and service outlets in Khon Kaen closed for three months in compliance with the government's measures. Despite no closure order this year, we are held back by zero spending.

"We have been hurt more than last year and we have depleted our financial reserves. However, we have seen positive signals since mid-February as the public sector and universities have started to spend on events," he said.

Pattaya puts hopes on relaxation

Ekkasit Ngampichet, president of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association, said the relaxation of Covid-19 measures for the Songkran festival would help stimulate tourism. A large concert on April 15-19 in the city would also help but on the condition that some measures are relaxed, he said.

Tourism in Pattaya was nonetheless showing positive signs as the vaccine rollout begins, quarantine periods are reduced and other restrictions eased ahead of Songkran festival. "Most importantly, people were less worried about their health and started to travel again," he said. "We want the government to urgently vaccinate the population, especially in tourist towns since tourism is the best stimulant for the economy. If the government cannot get 60-70% of the population inoculated, the private sector will pay for jabs itself. We want tourism businesses in Pattaya to move forward," said Mr Ekkasit.

He said many foreign tourists are ready to travel to Thailand. "We pray nothing adverse will happen before Songkran as it did during last year's New Year festival when Covid-19 cases re-emerged in mid-December. But in the end, the success of tourism stimulus measures depends on the cooperation of tourists who have to protect themselves," he said.

Mr Ekkasit added that Pattaya wanted to see room occupancy of over 70% every day during the festival as the city was still quiet on weekdays. "About one million tourists from Russia are waiting to travel to Thailand. Tourists from other countries, such as the UK, are also ready but are discouraged by the 14-day quarantine mandate," he said.

Phuket expects gradual recovery

President of the Phuket Tourist Association Bhummikitti Ruktaengam said he pinned his hopes on the renewal of the We Travel Together tourism stimulus scheme which could help bring in more tourists during the festival. Hotel occupancy would likely be around 35-40% if the scheme was in place. "Phuket has started to improve but not much. It's like recovering from an illness but we will fully bounce back this October."

Ratanada Chubal, president of the Health & Wellness Phuket Spa Association, said Songkran would be a major contributor to an expected tourism increase in Phuket.

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