As reduced quarantine comes into effect on April 1st with a promise of a full reopening by October 1st, the situation looks increasingly complex even to those involved in the foreign tourism industry so it must be bewildering for foreign tourists planning their first getaway somewhere in the world after the pandemic has finally receded. That somewhere, unfortunately, may not be Thailand if it involves red tape and a controlled holiday similar to a relaxed form of quarantine. People want to put the pandemic and the ‘new normal’ behind them forever and the only way that can be done is with wholesale vaccination of the population in all countries. In the meantime, the use of electronic vaccine passports may be required on a resurgent international flight network to restart global mass-market tourism again.
Senior tourism industry figures have begun to voice anxiety about current plans to reopen the kingdom’s borders to mass foreign tourism. It comes as last week’s announcement of a return to normality by October 1st has already descended into confusion with buzzword schemes, lack of clarity and what still amounts to controlled entry and supervised stays being proposed for the kingdom. There must now be doubt about the kingdom’s foreign tourism projections for 2021 unless there is a decisive change in emphasis.
Thailand is engaged in a race against time and competing countries in the global market to relaunch its foreign tourism industry this year. The kingdom’s Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) last week announced that the country would be open to tourists without quarantine from October 1st next but, at the same time, added that this would be under ‘bubble and seal’ conditions.
This week, amid growing dissatisfaction among the country’s larger tourist business operators as to how the kingdom is approaching reopening to the foreign tourism market, there was some indication as to how it might work as the Department of Disease Control on Ko Samui revealed that it had been approved ‘in principle’ under what appears to be a ‘bubble and seal’ controlled environment to welcome back foreign tourists from July 1st with reports of a Bangkok Airways flight from Singapore flying into the island.
Remarkably akin to last year’s Special Tourist Visa fiasco and a flight that arrived from China
This situation is remarkably akin to last year’s big idea which saw the government’s much-vaunted Special Tourist Visa disappoint in the months after it was launched when a flight of foreign tourists arriving from Shanghai was hailed as a breakthrough in October 2020.
It was not. The months that came after saw record low levels of foreign tourists returning to Thailand with less than 0.2% of normal arrivals for December 2020 and January 2021, formerly the peak season of the foreign tourism industry.
Amid buzzwords and jargon with no clarity, the target of 5 million foreign tourists is being lost sight of
Given the nature of what is being outlined, there must be fears that the 5 million foreign tourists still projected by the Finance Ministry for 2021 is at least under threat.
The visitor numbers for the third quarter commencing in July will tell us more but more importantly, by then, will be the progress of the kingdom’s vaccination programme.
The use of buzzwords and buzz phrases such as ‘sandbox’ and ‘bubble and seal’ simply adds to the confusion and frustration of potential tourists who seek nothing less or more than to return to Thailand with just a plane ticket, a passport in their hand and money in their pockets.
Until this happens, mass tourism will not return.
Successful government change of heart last year that saw foreigners living in Thailand or working in the kingdom, allowed to return under a controlled regime
Last year, the Thai government, after months of lobbying, was finally convinced to allow resident expats and those with connections to enter the kingdom under the then newly developed alternative quarantine scheme and a clearance system operated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The scheme was a success and has allowed tens of thousands of foreigners to return to Thailand at great expense to themselves and of benefit to the Thai economy.
At that time, the Thai government and some officials appeared to fail, up to that point, to see the difference between expats living in Thailand or with connections to the kingdom and foreign tourists.
Now the same mistake is being made in reverse.
Foreign tourists just want two to three weeks of relaxation in the sun but it must be with ‘freedom’
Most foreign tourists to Thailand simply seek two to three weeks of freedom where they can enjoy the sunshine and the laid back lifestyle that makes Thailand so popular across the world with tens of millions of regular visitors.
Despite the hype and the hoopla, they are not looking for ‘wellness’ or any other fanciful termed holidays, they are simply looking for sunshine and freedom away from their lives back at home especially given the experience nearly all have been through in the last 12 months.
The current proposals of the Thai government are unlikely to generate the levels of mass foreign tourism seen in the past and which Thailand’s economy so badly needs unless the country is opened in conditions much the same as existed before March 2020.
Mass tourism levels of visitors will not return until the current regime is completely dismantled
This means dismantling the quarantine system, the red tape and onerous requirements demanded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with a return to visa on arrival for qualifying countries with near-normal flight schedules operating into the kingdom.
Of course, this cannot happen until the kingdom’s population is vaccinated with Thai experts such as Dr Yong Poovorawan recommending that at least 70% of the population get the jab. Dr Yong has urged the government to focus on obtaining 100 million doses by using any means at its disposal.
So far, the Thai government has said that it is aiming to procure up to 70 million doses this year with less than 100,000 people, mostly in Samut Sakhon province, having received any vaccine doses as of now
Vaccination campaigns in countries of origin and the return of full flight connectivity will also decide this
It is also dependent on countries of origin such as the United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other Asian countries completing their vaccination programmes.
It also must coincide with the return of the international flight system with critical levels of connectivity and the use of a simple vaccination passport system such as that developed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) currently being trialled on major airlines such as Qatar Airways.
Minor Group boss criticises the government on several fronts from the rejection of the Covax programme to momentum on vaccination
This week, the government faced overt criticism from major industry leaders including William Heinecke of the Minor Group, one of Thailand’s most successful firms and an operator of a chain of hotels in the country.
He, like other tourism business leaders, has encouraged the government to embrace the world vaccine passport system using smartphones being trialled right now by the international airline industry as an early screening system until the population is fully vaccinated.
The system is simple to use and avoids red tape and paperwork which, as a businessman, he knows turns off prospective punters but which, unfortunately, Thailand’s bureaucracy appears addicted to.
He also says the government has been too dependent on both the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Sinovac jab from China.
He criticised authorities for declining to take part in the worldwide Covax programme.
He warned of the competition that the kingdom faces on the world market for foreign tourists as many countries try to kick start their foreign tourism industries at the same time and called for greater momentum and enthusiasm in the country’s vaccination drive.
UK has vaccinated 30 million people already
It comes as the United Kingdom has nearly 30 million people already at least partly vaccinated and managed, over the weekend, to inoculate nearly 900,000 people in one day.
Mr Heinecke has suggested the government use its Emergency Decree powers for this purpose and as in the United Kingdom, to open the programme up to the private sector in partnership and give them free rein to get on with the job.
‘The government failed to inspire the public to take the vaccine and left them with negative feelings towards the vaccine. We will lose tourism trade to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore because they have more efficient vaccination programmes,’ he said.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha’s vaccination last week was an act of leadership that for 24 hours, sparked a positive change with his comments
Last week, the inoculation of the Prime Minister and the cabinet with the AstraZeneca vaccine amid controversy swirling around the jab in Europe, was an impressive act of leadership by the government leader.
In the hours afterwards, the PM promised to reverse controls on vaccines limiting and indeed blocking their access to the private sector and move towards reopening the kingdom again to foreign tourism.
He promised further news by the end of the week.
What we got last Friday, however, was more buzzwords and very little by way of a fundamental commitment apart from a reduction in quarantine periods from April until October 1st next already announced previously.
Since then, the positive attitude and spirit generated by the Prime Minister have become mired in confusion and inertia with no clear idea as to what exactly is happening on October 1st next.
Threat remains from the virus
The situation, of course, has been complicated by outbreaks of the virus in Samut Prakan and again in the Bang Khen area of Bangkok in recent days including over 300 cases in Immigration Bureau detention facilities where nearly all prisoners were found to be infected.
Officials at the Ministry of Public Health understandably must continue to focus on public health as the key priority.
Minister supports Ko Samui and Phuket plans
On Monday, the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul indicated that a plan to vaccinate the local population in both Phuket and Ko Samui was likely to be supported by the government as he confirmed that officials would have access to 5 million AstraZeneca vaccines in June and 10 million per month thereafter.
In the short term, he talked about access to 1 million vaccine doses reserved still for Samut Sakhon but indicated that 100,000 would be allocated to Phuket and 50,000 doses to Ko Samui.
However, when questioned on plans by Ko Samui to reopen by July 1st, the minister refused to confirm that the proposal would get the final go-ahead from the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) or that foreign tourist would be allowed to return to Thailand under more relaxed measures from that date.
Ko Samui officials outlined their plans for a ‘Samui Wonder Island’ which amounts to relaxed quarantine
Details of the Ko Samui ‘Samui Wonder Island’ were released, this week, by Theerapong Chuaychu who outlined a two week holiday on the island and its associated islands of Ko Phangan and Ko Tao which would be tightly controlled and monitored with a tracking app.
The Ko Samui Director of the Department of Disease Control explained that tourists would be ferried from the airport in a controlled environment with partitioned vehicles to their hotels and would be restricted in their movement to their hotel room in the opening days of their stay.
They would be required to use a local smartphone or tracking app on arrival and would be traced at all times during their stay.
They would be subject to a Covid-19 test by day two or three and if confirmed negative, they would be given still restricted access to some areas on the island and within their hotel precints.
‘If they test negative, tourists will be allowed to travel in areas designated by the Samui district disease control centre,’ said Mr Theerapong.
After 7 days and two tests, visitors can travel between three islands, Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao for the second week of their holiday in Thailand
After a second Covid 19 test on the seventh day, the tourists would then be allowed to leave their hotel and move about at will, across three islands. After 14 days, the visitors would be allowed to travel within the kingdom freely.
Ratchakorn Poonsawad of the Ko Samui Tourism Association on the paradise island was upbeat about this plan.
‘Once an official approval is made by the Public Health Ministry, the Tourism Authority of Ko Samui would collaborate with Bangkok Airways and the Global Thai Tourism Authority to promote this campaign. It is expected to welcome the first group of Singaporean travellers by the earliest of July 1,’ he said.
Proposal has not been green-lighted yet by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration with talk of restrictions for high-risk countries
However, even with this scheme, there are already reports that those eligible to book such holidays in Thailand must be from countries that are not ‘high risk’.
This condition has not been clarified nor has the scheme itself been given final approval by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration(CCSA) despite being approved, like many others before it, ‘in principle’ which have later fallen in the face of changing circumstances.
Criticism from Tourism industry business leaders
This week, Thirayuth Chirathivat, the Chief Executive of Centara Hotels and Resorts also called on the government to focus now on a faster vaccination rollout and generating enthusiasm and momentum among the population.
He also called for a clearer and more effective plan to bring back foreign tourists to the kingdom.
He was joined by the President of the Thai Hotels Association, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, who wanted to see a reopening to foreign tourists confirmed by July 1st warning that the foreign tourist industry could not wait until October 1st as 50% of hotel jobs have already been lost.