Phuket gears up to reopen for quarantine-free travel in July

BANGKOK: Come Jul 1, international tourists will be able to visit Phuket in southern Thailand without going through quarantine if they have been vaccinated. 

The decision was announced last week by the Center for Economic Situation Administration, following a proposal by Phuket’s private sector after nearly a year of economic woes due to the pandemic.

“There must be no quarantine because tourism and quarantine don’t go together,” Phuket Tourist Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam told CNA.

“And in order to remove the quarantine, we need vaccination.”

The popular resort island heavily relies on international tourists. In 2019, they made up 73 per cent of the total of 14.55 million visitors, based on data from the Phuket Provincial Statistical Office. This means when the government banned international commercial flights last April to control the pandemic, Phuket was hit hard.

The island’s pristine beaches are now mostly empty despite the high season. Many restaurants and bars are shut while hotels and resorts suffer from a drop in bookings. However, this could change over the next few months.

PHUKET James Bond Island

The so-called James Bond Island. (Photo: Phuket Hotels Association)

Many business operators in Phuket have already begun calling back employees and banks have also started giving out loans, Bhummikitti said. 

“Of course, the number of tourists may not be as high as it was in 2019 or the years before that but I think this will be a start. Everybody understands that during the initial period, international arrivals may not be overwhelming. Still, we’re confident that if we can reopen in July, the prospects should be very good from October onwards,” he added.

As the province prepares to welcome oversea travellers, a plan has been made to inoculate 70 per cent of its residents against COVID-19. The Phuket Provincial Administration has set a target of procuring 933,174 doses of vaccine from the government for 466,587 people, including local residents and migrant workers.

READ: Thai cocktail bars transformed in fight to survive COVID-19 impact

PHUKET SANDBOX MODEL

The reopening of Phuket will be used as a test to gauge international tourism demand as well as Thailand’s readiness to unlock more areas for overseas travellers later this year.

According to Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) governor Yuthasak Supasorn, the southern island was chosen to pioneer the quarantine-free tourism model because of its readiness, strong reliance on international tourists and geographic insularity.

Phuket

A file photo of tourists on Patong beach in Phuket, southern Thailand, before the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

It is also one of the preferred destinations among overseas travellers besides Bangkok, Samui, Krabi, Pattaya, Hua Hin and Chiang Mai, Yuthasak said in a press conference on Mar 26, citing a survey by TAT.

“For long-haul markets, I can say Thailand is the top destination for every one of them,” he told reporters, referring to Scandinavian countries, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

The same applies to short-haul markets like China, India, Southeast Asian countries, Hong Kong and South Korea, which also put Thailand as a destination to visit. Respondents also stated they’d rather travel to Thailand in 2021 than in 2022.

The quarantine-free tourism model “Phuket sandbox” requires international visitors to complete their COVID-19 vaccination in their country and produce proof upon arrival in Phuket from July, along with a certificate showing negative COVID-19 test results obtained before flying to Thailand. 

They will also have to download mobile application ThailandPlus for tracking purposes during their stay.

While visitors may be able to get into Phuket, they will also have to bear in mind possible travel restrictions on outbound travel in their home country, as well as the likely need to go through some form of quarantine when they return.

Today, nearly all 3,000 hotels in Phuket are closed

Today, nearly all 3,000 hotels in Phuket are closed. (Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha) 

According to Yuthasak, the majority of international leisure travellers surveyed would choose to visit areas that have carried out the vaccination programme and require no quarantine. 

For Phuket, its proposed vaccine procurement plan is divided into several periods from March to October. Nine vaccination points will be set up around the island to ensure its residents are safe from COVID-19, its Public Relations Office reported.

The Phuket sandbox model is part of the Thai government’s plan to boost the country’s economy. In February, the National Economic and Social Development Council predicted a 3 per cent increase in gross domestic product (GDP) this year. However, its secretary-general Danucha Pichayanan said last week that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha wants all sectors to push for a 4 per cent expansion.

Phuket's busy Patong beach has fallen silent this year

Phuket’s busy Patong beach has fallen silent this year. (Photo: AFP/Lillian SUWANRUMPHA)

In the third quarter of 2021, Phuket’s tourism industry expects to welcome international tourists from short-haul destinations such as the Middle East, Singapore, Hong Kong and some provinces in China. 

However, Bhummikitti from the Phuket Tourist Association said how the scheme would pan out also depends on negotiations between the Thai government and its counterparts in target destinations.

“Everybody understands that during the initial period, international tourists won’t simply pour in. Still, we’re confident that if we can reopen in July, the prospects should be very good from October onwards,” he said.

“In the fourth quarter of this year, the tourism demand from Europe should be stronger than usual because we believe many people would want to leave their countries and travel as they would have been suppressed for two years by then.”

READ: Stray dogs and cats at risk of starvation during COVID-19 crisis in Thailand

“WE WANT THAILAND TO BE ON THEIR MINDS”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Thailand generated approximately US$96 billion from about 39.8 million international tourists in 2019, according to Yuthasak, the TAT governor. 

Last year, he said the country only welcomed some 6.7 million overseas travellers – the lowest number ever recorded – and generated just above US$26 billion or about 73 per cent less than the year before. 

“It not only caused a loss of income but also affected employment, given that the tourism industry contributed nearly 20 per cent to the country’s GDP. When people are unable to travel or gather, major cities that heavily rely on tourism such as Phuket, Samui, Chiang Mai, Krabi and Phang Nga have felt the repercussions like never before,” Yuthasak told CNA.

FILE PHOTO: A few Western tourists are seen on a beach which is usually full of Chinese

FILE PHOTO: A few Western tourists are seen on a beach which is usually full of Chinese tourists, amid fear of coronavirus in Phuket, Thailand Mar 10, 2020. (REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun/File Photo/File Photo)

Since last year, the government has been trying to bring back leisure tourists from abroad through tourism incentives such as the Special Tourist Visa and reduced quarantine periods.

From Thursday (Apr 1), international visitors to certain destinations in Thailand will only have to be quarantined in their hotels and designated areas for seven days instead of 14 days if they have completed their COVID-19 vaccination and show negative test results. The destinations include Phuket, Krabi, Phang Nga, Samui, Pattaya and Chiang Mai.

Then, on Jul 1, the quarantine-free tourism model begins in Phuket before expanding to cover the aforementioned provinces in October.

“By welcoming back tourists, we don’t expect a huge number of them to come. It’s more about creating confidence and making them think of Thailand because we don’t know when they would be able to travel,” Yuthasak said. 

“But when their countries allow them to travel abroad, we want Thailand to be on their minds as one of the preferred destinations.”

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