Thailand reopens to tourists, starting with Phuket in July
By Chalermlapvoraboon Valaiporn
BANGKOK, NNA - Thailand is finally reopening for quarantine-free tourism and big events starting with Phuket island on July 1, and then the rest of the kingdom by mid-October if things go well.
Taking a cautious approach, Phuket will accept only fully vaccinated tourists who are not from high-risk pandemic countries. They must stay in a designated hotel and take COVID-19 tests.
Although there is no minimum length of stay, those planning to journey from Phuket to other parts of Thailand must stay on the island for at least 14 nights first.
The long-awaited reopening comes under the Phuket Sandbox scheme which covers a host of conditions for tourists such as pre-visit registration, entry certificate, COVID tests, health insurance and use of a trace app.
Opening the popular beach resort with risk management in place is a test for tourism readiness of the whole country which has been plagued by a third coronavirus wave and slow vaccine rollout.
If the scheme works well and the pandemic situation is under control, Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya and Chiang Mai will open their doors to foreign visitors in the coming months.
Phichet Panaphong, deputy provincial governor of Phuket, said the Phuket Sandbox scheme is expected to attract about 129,000 tourists and generate about 11.4 billion baht in revenues in the third quarter.
Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, said, “The plan is aimed at accelerating the revival of the country’s tourism industry and paving the way for the reopening of other tourist destinations within Thailand.”
Tourism in the tourist-dependent kingdom and other popular destinations in Southeast Asia has been largely decimated by pandemic lockdowns for more than a year.
Thailand received nearly 40 million foreign arrivals or about 4 percent more in 2019. They generated a revenue of 1.93 trillion baht, accounting for 12 percent of GDP for Southeast Asia's second largest economy.
When the coronavirus swept across the region in 2020, foreign arrivals in Thailand plunged to 6.7 million, devastating many businesses in the hospitality industry.
Heavily dependent on tourism, Phuket was badly hit with many job losses and business closures.
Visitor numbers tumbled from 14 million in 2019 to 4 million last year, dragging down tourist revenue from 49.7 billion baht to 20 billion baht accordingly.
Anthony Lark, president of Phuket Hotels Association, told NNA that its member-hotels achieved an occupancy of 65 to 70 percent in 2019. It has since plummeted to about 10 percent.
The association hopes the reopening will fill 40 to 50 percent of the rooms.
Concurring, Thirayuth Chirathivat, CEO of Centara Hotels and Resorts, said the group hopes occupancy rate will go up to 50 percent in the second half of this year as the country reopens its borders gradually.
Centara, which runs 43 properties in Thailand including popular locations like Phuket, Koh Samui island and Chiang Mai, saw their average occupancy in 2019 hitting nearly 80 percent, Thirayuth told NNA.
The reopening of Phuket will also see the return of major and international events such as music festivals, marathons, surfing competition and boat races, said Lark of the hotel association.
Meanwhile, many places are gearing up for the return of visitors with more than 1,600 of them receiving COVID-safety certification for following government protocols. They include restaurants, hotels, spas, shopping malls, convenience stores, souvenir shops and sports facilities.
Hotels designated for tourists under the Phuket Sandbox scheme obtained a higher certification indicating that at least 70 percent of their staff have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Lark said 90 percent of tourism-related businesses in Phuket are expected to have the higher certification before July. The island hopes to get 70 percent of its population inoculated by then too.
As their numbers will be small especially in the next few months, visitors are likely to enjoy a quieter, cleaner and far less crowded Phuket which used to see its attractions and nightspots jam-packed with crowds.
Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the president of Phuket Tourist Association said, “The Phuket Sandbox scheme will have to be closely monitored, as we have to find a balance between reviving the economy as well as maintaining low infection cases."