This is despite what appeared to be support for the proposal from Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha when asked about it by reporters in Rayong during a visit there by the Thai cabinet. However, it has emerged this week that there is opposition to the move from top medical experts. We also know that the PM advised the Minister of Tourism to focus his efforts for now on domestic tourism which is, in fact, floundering.

A breakthrough scheme to galvanise the recovery of Thailand’s critical foreign tourism industry, once the jewel in the country’s economic crown, has hit conflict and confusion at the end of the week with a government spokeswoman pouring cold water on its immediate launch underlining that it has not yet been fully approved and is being looked at critically.

phuket-breakthrough-foreign-tourism-walked-back-friday-government-spokeswoman
Comments by Deputy Government Spokeswoman Traisulee Traisoranakul in Bangkok on Friday appeared to pour cold water on prospects of reopening foreign tourism into Phuket which was announced last week and is projected to commence on the 1st of October. It comes amid what appears to be a debate within the government about reopening Thailand to foreign tourists with calls to do so becoming increasingly urgent from the tourism sector facing opposition from medical experts and those who wish to see Thailand use the opportunity to move away from mass tourism. This week the PM appeared to defend the move as essential to protect livelihoods.

A week after what appeared to be a breakthrough when a new package for foreign tourism was announced by the Chairman of the Tourism Authority, Yuthasak Supasorn, last Friday, comes news that the proposed reopening of Phuket to foreign tourists from October 1st, which was reportedly agreed in principle last Friday and which was defended vehemently by the Prime Minister, during the week, may still be only on the drawing board.

Doubts were raised about the proposal on Friday when Deputy Government Spokeswoman Traisulee Traisoranakul asserted that the reentry of foreign tourists to Thailand as outlined for Phuket would not be happening in the short term and that the government was only still in the process of examining the proposal closely.

Spokeswoman says only Covid free countries will have access to new Phuket tourism scheme

She indicated that the government was looking closely at the screening procedures for tourists that may be allowed to visit Thailand. She also suggested that only tourists from Covid free countries would be allowed to participate in the new scheme.

The scheme, announced last week, would see foreign tourists being allowed entry into Phuket but strictly subject to 14 days quarantine at selected resorts where they would have access to beaches and the sea. During the period, they would undergo two Covid 19 tests. 

After this, they would have access to the island of Phuket while undertaking a third Covid 19 test. After 21 days and the all-clear, these tourists would then be allowed to travel to other parts of Thailand.

Prime Minister this week appeared to defend opening up Phuket and other hotspots to foreign tourists

It is not clear what is driving the new reticence about the proposal that appeared to be gaining in momentum during the week.

It could be linked to reported opposition from medical experts to the scheme who warn of a possible second wave of the virus if doors are further opened to foreigners.

In Rayong, the prime minister appeared to vociferously support the proposal when he claimed that local people in Phuket will suffer if no effort is made to reopen the island to foreign tourism.

‘If nothing is done, things will get worse. Premises will be shut down. Employees will be laid off. How can the government afford to help them all?’ he said.

Centre for Covid 19 Administration member also supported the move to ease local economic hardship

His position was echoed by the Deputy Chief of the Thai Army and a key member of the Centre for Covid 19 Situation Administration, General Nattapol Nakpanich. 

General Nattapol warned that severe hardship is being felt in former Thai tourist hotspots because of the current ban on foreign tourists.

The senior officer also pointed to an announcement by the top committee with oversight over the Thai government’s response to the virus emergency, to broaden entry into Thailand through the scheme operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to now include all permanent residents and property owners in the kingdom.

General Nattapol made the point that many of these foreigners have large disposable income and contribute heavily to the Thai economy.

Resistance from top medical experts

It is understood that there is resistance to the move to reopen tourism from senior medical experts who have even called for the existing flow of incoming foreigners through the channel operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, making use of Thai embassies worldwide and the alternative quarantine scheme, to be put on hold as the numbers arriving into the kingdom mount. 

The broadening of entry requirements for this scheme is already giving rise to more frequent incoming passenger flights.

Emirates Airline announced the resumption of flights to Bangkok from September 1st

This week, Emirates Airline announced that it would be recommencing its flights from Dubai to Bangkok on the 1st September.

On July 1st, the Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand relaxed the outright ban on incoming passenger flights to allow for a range of people to fly into the kingdom including those approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs including foreigners with a work permit.

Normal tourists will not be allowed on such flights except under further approved government initiatives.

The airline, in its website, is claiming that it’s once extremely popular morning flight from Dubai to Bangkok will resume as it relaunches its 78 city international flight network which was suspended in March this year.

Thai Airways also announces bi-monthly flights from key countries from the end of November

Troubled Thai Airways has also announced that it will be running chartered flights from the end of November to Phuket from a range of countries including Denmark, Germany, England, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

The announcement was made by Acting President of the airline, Chansin Treenuchagro, on Thursday. These flights will run on a bi-monthly basis.

Tourism minister predicts 2 million foreign tourists during the high season from 2020 into 2021

Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, who is believed to have championed the Phuket proposal to re-engage foreign tourists as a precursor to further reopening the kingdom, has suggested that as many as 2 million foreign visitors may enter Thailand in the period from September to early 2021 or the former High Season.

This would be only 10% of normal levels.

However, such predictions have been ridiculed by some as too bullish given the restrictive quarantine conditions on arrival and screening procedures before even flying to Thailand. All in addition to facing further quarantine measures when tourists arrive home.

Prime Minister in Rayong cabinet visit this week urged the minister to focus on domestic tourism

The tourism minister has told reporters that, in Rayong for last Tuesday’s cabinet meeting in the eastern province, the prime minister had urged him to focus his efforts on domestic tourism at this stage.

The problem for the minister and tourism planners is that the appetite among the Thai public battered by hardship and with a damaged domestic economy, simply does not exist right now for holidays at a sufficient level. 

A recent promotion with 5 million special offers for domestic tourism deals, heavily subsidised by the government, only had a 20% takeup rate.

Experience of Croatia gives ammunition to those in Thailand opposed to reopening the country

Meanwhile, the health boffins advising the Centre of Covid 19 Situation Administration may be directing the government’s attention to the current virus scare story from Croatia and others like it.

That country, earlier in the summer, had been praised for its ability to restrain and control the spread of the virus, particularly from hard-hit European countries in the European Union up to June this year.

However, the reopening of Croatia to tourism after June has seen a second wave of the virus which has seen daily infections climb over 100 cases per day with a spike of 219 cases on August 19th.

Authorities in the country decided to make face masks mandatory from July 12th.

The country, with a population of only just over 4 million, has seen 180 deaths from the virus with nearly 60 occurring since the country reopened its tourism sector.

The Croatian government has introduced measures including restricting nightclub opening hours and dividing the country into tourism zones to combat the disease.

A lockdown has been ruled out.

Assurances from Prayut this week for locals in tourist centres as the government weighs the question

The prime minister, on Wednesday, assured locals in Phuket and other areas where foreign tourists may be allowed entry to, that the government’s approach to it would be strict including full traceability and even if the infection was detected, there would be no danger of it breaking out on a wider scale.

The position is that there is still no firm decision or clarity on the reopening of Thailand to foreign tourism despite the agreement in respect of Phuket in principle last week.

However, it does look like the government is inching towards a coordinated effort to relaunch foreign tourism.

Forgiveness or grace period for hotel bank loans and monthly repayments to expire in September

On the one hand, it has tourism industry leaders warning of catastrophe particularly as September will see commercial banks taking a stronger stance against customers not meeting loan obligations as all debt repayment holidays expire at the behest of Thailand’s Central Bank.

Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, the Chairwoman of the Thai Hotel Association, warned this week that most hotels are currently experiencing a zero occupancy rate and that the situation could lead to a complete collapse of the tourism industry from next month.

This week also, Democrat Party leader, Minister of Commerce and one of the country’s most senior politicians, Jurin Laksanawisit, emphasised his ministry’s work at boosting cross border trade with neighbouring countries and boosting the country’s digital economy as his priority.

Cannot sit back and lose ฿2 trillion per annum

Unfortunately for the tourism entrepreneurs, there are still many in the kingdom as in other countries, who see this crisis as an opportunity for change despite the increasingly insistent economic imperative and severe hardship the current situation is causing.

In Thailand, there is a growing cohort of people opposed to mass-market tourism, a movement which began some years ago.

These voices within the government, allied with the medical establishment, are creating a tension balanced against the new economic leadership which knows that Thailand cannot sit by indefinitely and let ฿2 trillion per annum in foreign tourism earnings simply disappear into the air along with the virus that caused it. 

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Further reading:

Broader opening of Thailand to tourists may be on but only with robust health controls says PM

Tourism is coming back to Phuket with a wave of visitors expected from October in a surprising move

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