Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, appears to be pitted against the medical establishment in the kingdom with the minister hitting out last week and questioning why migrant labour from neighbouring countries is being allowed to return while carefully controlled foreign tourists are opposed.
The boss of Thailand’s Tourism Authority has indicated that the reopening of the kingdom to foreign tourists through the ‘Phuket Model’ may be in jeopardy because of a case of local transmission detected in a prison screening facility last Wednesday. It comes as it is clear that there is increasing division within the government over its response to the issue.
Despite being approved already in principle by the cabinet and still being promoted by Tourism and Sports Minister, Phiphat Ratchakijprakan, the ‘Phuket Model’ to reopen Thailand to foreign tourists was thrown into further doubt this weekend when the man who first announced it, Tourism Authority of Thailand boss, Yuthasak Supasorn, suggested that it may have to be postponed.
The plan which was to commence on October 1st and first envisaged a party of 200 Australians and New Zealand tourists.
The plan entailed the tourists undertaking the same strict entry criteria currently in place for certificate of entry applicants from around the world using the alternative quarantine scheme and subject to 14 days quarantine in conjunction with state agencies.
Stringent entry criteria for foreign tourists under ‘Phuket Model’ including strict quarantine
This will mean these tourists are required to have Covid 19 tests completed and returned as negative up to 72 hours before flying, have $100,000 in insurance cover including providing for the virus and presenting a full medical certificate.
On arrival in Phuket, the tourists would be subject to 14 days quarantine with two Covid 19 tests followed by the visitors being allowed outside the hotel premises or resorts with access to the island.
It is understood that the initial batch of two hundred visitors from Australia and New Zealand would even be placed under more restrictive quarantine and confined to their bedrooms.
Most foreigners would not visit under new rules
After 14 days, the tourists would then be allowed to travel throughout Phuket but if those taking part opt for a licence to visit the rest of Thailand, they will be required to undertake 21 days quarantine and pass a further Covid 19 test.
The stringent nature of the plan has drawn strong criticism from foreigners online who suggest that they would reject any holiday involving 14 days quarantine.
A recent survey by IATA, the airline industry body, suggested that over 83% of potential foreign tourists have the same attitude and would not visit any country with such a regime.
Proposal has come up against a wall after the first case of local transmission in over 100 days
Now, even this plan is in doubt.
The reason being that a recently jailed inmate in a prison screening centre tested positive on Wednesday for the virus breaking over 100 days in Thailand with no case of local transmission.
The 37-year-old was arrested for illegal drugs and worked at a bar in central Bangkok as a DJ and also at a coffee shop on the Khao San road.
Tourism boss, Mr Yuthasak, suggested this weekend that because of the development, the whole programme was likely to be pushed back.
This raises serious questions as it was clear that opposition to the Phuket model appeared to be prevalent within government circles from last weekend with a government spokeswoman suggesting that it was far from being approved in the first place.
It was approved in principle, it is understood, at the cabinet meeting held the week before in Rayong.
Clearly exasperated Tourism Minister
Last week, opposition to the ‘Phuket Model’ drew forth a clearly exasperated Tourism Minister, Mr Phiphat who since his appointment last year to his role, has seen nearly every significant proposal he has pushed in relation to boosting foreign tourism income for Thailand either be rejected by cabinet or ultimately not come to fruition by being called off.
This was clear last week when Mr Phiphat openly questioned the medical establishment who have voiced strong opposition to reopening Thailand to foreign tourism under any circumstances.
Mr Phiphat said that the reopening of the kingdom to foreign tourists through this model was critical to the economy and that he simply could not understand why there was no objection from the government’s senior medical advisers to plans approved to bring in migrant workers from neighbouring countries when this controlled model was safer.
Myanmar Covid 19 outbreak fears led to calls for a halt to migrant labour from that country
Last week, Thailand also faced fears of an outbreak in Myanmar which led to the Centre for Covid 19 Situation Administration calling on businesses to postpone any plans to recruit migrant labour from that particular country.
Consultations in Phuket still ongoing on foreign tourism plan with divergences of opinion
This weekend, Mr Yuthasak of the Tourism Authority confirmed that consultations are still underway in Phuket about the planned restart for foreign tourism.
It came on a long weekend when he was forced to admit that hotel occupancy rates were only at 30% and that the government’s touted domestic tourism support package was floundering with a faint-hearted response from the public, at this time.
This has led to the package being made more attractive with 40% support offers for hotel accommodation being extended from 5 days to 10 while plane flight limits are to be increased to up to ฿2,000 per picket.
Split in government on the issue
It is clear that senior officials in Thailand are split over the issue of allowing the foreign tourism industry to recommence at all.
The Tourism and Sports Minister is counting on the support of colleagues on the newly established Covid 19 economic management team and also, it is understood, that plans are being developed by the Ministry of Sports and Tourism working closely with the National Economic and Social Development Council.
However, Mr Phiphat appears up against a powerful medical establishment with some senior medical experts even calling for a halt to all foreigners who are currently arriving in increasing numbers under the expensive and controlled certificate of entry process.
Divided opinion, decimated former tourist hotspots not helping the minister make the case
The minister is also facing a problem with a tourism industry divided among itself even in economically decimated areas such as Phuket and Ko Samui.
On Phuket, despite claims from leading hoteliers that scores of hotels could face bankruptcy in September if something is not ironed out, some tourist leaders are opposing the minister’s plan because the access to foreigners is too controlled while others suggest that it targets VIP tourists who may not follow the rules.
There is also widespread confusion about how the scheme will work. Many fail to understand that the quarantine proposed will be implemented by state agencies
One thing is sure.
Despite the heavy economic impact and the hardships suffered by tourist-related concerns and employees, there is a strong body of opinion among the public in Phuket which is still deeply opposed to reopening to foreigners. It is a similar story in Ko Samui and within Surat Thani province.
This has been shown in repeated surveys on a national basis.
The confusion among the public, local politicians and the tourist industry can be summed up by a statement last week in Phuket from Patong’s Mayor Chalermlak Kebsap: ‘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.’
Top Bank of Thailand man warns that the economy needs foreign tourism to perform well
Last week, Mr Don Nakornthab, a senior Bank of Thailand director and economic expert, warned that Thailand must reopen to foreign tourists carefully if there is going to be any real economic improvement.
He indicated that there has been some sign of improvement in the economy since the depths of the shutdown which could be matched with a further contraction as the numbers projected for foreign tourists will be lower than even its minimal targets for 2020 if the kingdom does not reopen in some measure.
Its estimates included a projection of 8 million visitors this year with 6.7 million having already arrived before and up to the closure of Thailand’s borders.
This loss of 1.3 million visitors or foreign tourists if the industry does not return at all, represents a further 0.5% contraction.
Overall, the bank fears that the economy may contract by 10% this year with an even bigger contraction of 13% in the second half of the year, higher than in the first half, despite improvement since the low point of early May.