The rate of vaccination in Thailand and the success of plans to reopen Phuket to quarantine free tourism are becoming critical factors in the government’s economic plan to reopen the kingdom to foreign tourism by October 1st 2021 to restart the industry, a critical engine of the country’s economy. Nothing is as yet clear or finalised except for the economic consequences if foreign tourism arrivals fail to materialise on a mass level leaving the government with a challenge.
Despite the approval of a plan to reopen Phuket to foreign tourists without quarantine last week by the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) supported by Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow, over the weekend, it became quite clear that this plan is still subject to final approval at the highest level and this will be dependent on the vaccination rollout within the country’s largest island and biggest foreign tourist haven. The long-delayed broader reopening of Thailand to mass tourism also appears to be dependent on the success of this plan but must go ahead by October 1st as the government and the Finance Ministry aims to financially refloat the scuppered foreign tourism industry with a massive asset warehousing scheme.
With reports that local tourism has rebounded in many former foreign tourist hotspots such as Phuket and Pattaya in recent weeks, there are clear signals that approval for the scheme to reopen Phuket to foreign tourists without quarantine has not yet been officially approved.
The plan was given the green light by the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) when it met last Friday but over the weekend, a representative of the Tourism Authority of Thailand in Phuket attended a public meeting alongside officials from Bangkok including Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce, Jurin Laksanawisit at the Provincial Hall.
Tourism Authority of Thailand regional office director says reopening of the island to foreign tourists is contingent on achieving herd immunity
The meeting heard the regional office director for the state tourism agency, Ms Nanthasiri Ronnasiri, emphasise to those present that the plan was contingent on the successful vaccination of 70% of the local population on the island and most importantly, all those who worked on the island but were not officially registered there.
It comes as it has also emerged that while 930,000 doses will be made available to vaccinate the population including casual migrant labour and the self-employed, the delivery of the doses will not occur in one block.
Island has an average income of ฿2,000 with 64,000 people unemployed or 14% of the actual population
The meeting heard from the President of the Phuket Tourist Association, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, who has been a key driver of the plan to reopen Phuket to save the estimated 600 hotels on the island and end the shutdown which has left 64,000 people unemployed and the average income on the island below ฿2,000.
These figures were confirmed by Chayanon Pucharoen of the Prince of Songkla University on Saturday night who highlighted that this came about even as the island appears to have benefited from ฿1.5 billion in local tourism initiatives in the last 12 months sponsored by the government but which cannot hope to replace the impact of closure to the foreign tourism market.
‘Currently, Phuket Province has requested a quota of 933,174 vaccine doses to cover 466,587 people – including groups of entrepreneurs and migrant workers in the Phuket area,’ Mr Bhummikitti told a large audience at the Phuket Provincial Hall on Saturday last.
Only 4,000 vaccine doses already delivered
However, it is understood that only 4,000 doses have so far arrived on the island up to the end of March with a further 600,000 doses to be delivered in April, May and June.
If all were administered, this would see a vaccination rate of 65% achieved by the proposed reopening date on July 1st next which is below the 70% target for herd immunity and an even higher number than 70% deemed essential by many leading Thai medical experts.
Tourists flying into Phuket must be vaccinated
The plan is currently before the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration and still subject to its final review in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Governor of Phuket.
All tourist arrivals flying directly into Phuket will be required to have proof of vaccination and only then would not be required to quarantine.
Local population to be consulted if herd immunity is not achieved says TAT boss Yuthasak Supasorn
The Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn, has said this week that if the goal of herd immunity is not achieved before the July 1st date, that the decision would be one for the local population to make.
However, he did indicate he was confident there would be support for the initiative as the plan was more robust and comprehensive than last year’s ‘Phuket Model’ proposal which ended up shelved like many other schemes since the start of the Covid-19 crisis.
Programme to achieve full herd immunity and vaccinate all residents on the island at nine locations
The meeting on Saturday heard that there are plans to vaccinate a total of 466,587 people including the unregistered population on the island before the end of October 2021 giving full herd immunity.
The organisers of the plan including Mr Bhummikitti, have designated nine vaccination points across the island to deliver the vaccine.
‘There will be nine vaccination points across Phuket to make Phuket a white area safe from COVID-19,’ he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Jurin urges the island to also focus on local tourism and said the Governor was responsible for the vaccination campaign
During the presentation on Saturday, the Minister of Commerce, however, was anxious to emphasise that even with its efforts to vaccinate the local population, the island should continue to promote local tourism.
He said the final responsibility for the local vaccination campaign lay with the tourism island’s governor
‘Now the Ministry of Public Health has confirmed that 930,000 doses of the vaccine will be delivered to Phuket so that Phuket can provide comprehensive vaccination for people and related persons,’ he said.
He singled out a popular seafood festival on the island as a key attraction for Thai visitors to Phuket.
‘This activity has begun to become well known and has attracted a large number of tourists to Phuket. Other events include the Heroines Festival and sports activities,’ he enthused.
Island could be set for 2 million visitors by the end of 2021 led by Chinese charter flights in July
It is reported if the plan does get the final go-ahead by July 1st, Thai planners estimate that Phuket, which normally sees 90% of its tourism revenues come from outside Thailand, could see up to 2 million visitors entering the country’s largest island on the Andaman Sea by the end of 2021.
It is expected that Chinese charter flights could begin flying in during July with visitors from the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and western countries following towards the end of the year and in particular in the last three months of the year which are winter months in Europe and North America.
This could generate up to ฿105 billion in badly needed foreign tourism revenue or $3.4 billion.
These figures were quoted by Vichit Prakobgosol, the Vice President of the Tourism Council of Thailand to Bloomberg in New York in recent days.
Economic planners are targeting at least 5 million foreign tourists for Thailand in 2021, it is a challenge
However this, in itself, would not be enough to fulfil a 5 million baseline target set by the Finance Ministry in recent months and this depends on the whole country reopening by October 1st.
As with Phuket, this is entirely dependent on the effective rollout of vaccination campaigns and the success of initiatives outside Thailand such as vaccination campaigns in countries of origin and the implementation of a practical vaccine passport scheme by world airlines.
Current restrictions and lack of clarity must be addressed for Thailand to regain access to trillions of baht in lost income with foreign tourism switched off
Thailand will also have to look at the paperwork requirements for potential foreign tourists planning a trip to the country with all eyes later in the year focused on the numbers of foreign tourist arrivals in the April to October period which is to see a reduction in quarantine requirements.
Thailand’s route back to mass tourism is still highly uncertain even though the economic consequences of failure to do so are growing.
Even with a strong impetus towards growth in exports, the kingdom’s economy cannot sustain the continued loss of foreign tourism income that has been lost in the last 12 months estimated to be at least ฿2 trillion in hard cash.
Local populations sensitive to premature reopening to foreign tourists despite the overarching economics
There is also a sensitive political element in this equation with communities and business interests even in tourist hotspot areas such as Chiang Mai, Surat Thani province (home to Koh Samui and associated islands) and even Pattaya voicing concerns about a premature reopening to foreign tourists without achieving the protection offered by herd immunity.
This week, the President of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association, Boonanan Phattanasin, made this point as he observed that even though the resort city in Chonburi has seen its foreign tourism industry ravaged by the pandemic, authorities must avoid a premature return of foreign tourism.
There are, he pointed out, parts of the city that rely on local tourism within Thailand which have seen a recovery in recent weeks as the second wave of the virus has been contained.
He said that many business owners feared a reopening to foreign tourists would scare off the local trade that has now developed.
Challenge facing officials as economic imperative grows with an ambitious asset warehousing scheme
This ambivalence is another challenge for Thai authorities coupled with the complex logistics of rolling out vaccines to over 30 million people in the country by the end of the year.
However, the economic impact of the closure to foreign tourism since last year is still building up and that imperative cannot be ignored without considerably more devastating consequences than those seen yet.
Thailand’s top economic officials are ready to launch a strategically important asset warehousing scheme aimed at thousands of tourism and hotel concerns. This is part of a ฿350 billion budget allocation just approved by the cabinet.
This cannot happen without the viability of the industry being restored and that means the return of vigorous mass foreign tourism.