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.

The plan to reopen Phuket was approved last Friday by the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) supported by Deputy Prime Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow (right). The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha. The plan is contingent on achieving herd immunity and a vaccination programme beginning in April on the island in the Andaman Sea with final official approval to be given by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration in consultation with the Governor of Phuket, Narong Woonsiew and the Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn. At a meeting in Phuket last Saturday, the Minister of Commerce and Deputy Prime Minister, Jurin Laksanawisit (further right) emphasised the island should also focus on promoting local tourism.

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 plan to reopen in 2021 lacks clarity 

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.

Officials work on asset warehouse plan to relaunch Thai tourism 

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.

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Further reading:

Plan to reopen Phuket to foreign tourists on July 1st appears promising but UK taxman wants a cut

Thailand’s plan to reopen lacks clarity with rising doubts for anything like mass tourism in 2021

Centre for Covid-19 announces ‘bubble and seal’ measures after October 1st with quarantine lifted

PM signals a policy change to allow broader and easier private sector access to Covid-19 vaccines

PM leads the way as Thailand aims to return to normal by pushing forward its vaccine drive using AstraZeneca

Phuket could be open again to mass foreign tourism by July 1st says Tourism Minister Phiphat

Proposal to ease quarantine sent to government from the Public Health Ministry committee on Monday

Minister urged not to be afraid to borrow in 2021 as fears grow for a quick foreign tourism revival

Thailand to reopen to ‘big fish’ tourists as a cryptocurrency friendly haven says promotion agency boss

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Industry leaders and central bank all warn that foreign tourism must return to avoid a collapse

Refloat of foreign tourism in the 2nd half of 2021 with vaccines pushed by minister and industry for the sector

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Desperate foreign tourism business concerns are clinging to straws as they try to survive the crisis

Strict entry criteria to remain as officials await clarity on the medical status of vaccinated people

Challenge of the virus and closure to tourism leads to major long term changes in the Thai economy