Reopening of Phuket to turn the island into a holiday Alcatraz with heightened and stringent security measures being imposed by officials. It comes as Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, has confirmed that tens of thousands of visitors or nearly 50% of pre-bookings have been cancelled as foreign tourists reject the Thai government’s restrictions and controls by opting to vacation elsewhere.
On Wednesday night, the Thai Prime Minister indicated that the nightmare for Thailand’s foreign tourism industry will be ended by mid-October when he said the country would reopen fully to international travellers even if the Covid-19 virus persists as a threat to the kingdom. His comments come as officials look set to further tweak the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ reopening with reports of Alcatraz like security on the island including a GPS tracking wristband for each visitor, a Covid-19 test on arrival at the airport and facial recognition technology at road and transport checkpoints throughout the island as the scheme looks set to get the green light.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha took to national television in Thailand on Wednesday evening to announce that the kingdom will fully reopen to international arrivals and business as usual from the middle of October this year.
It comes after over 14 months of closure to international tourism and just days before the cabinet is expected to give the final green light to a reopening of Phuket to vaccinated tourists without quarantine on a test basis but still under an extremely controlled regime which has turned off many potential visitors.
Foreign tourism industry support is critical to Thailand’s unequal and imbalanced economy
Thai economists, including senior planners at the Bank of Thailand, have begun emphasising to the government the critical role that the foreign tourism industry plays in Thailand’s economy. This is something made even more powerful by the unequal nature of the kingdom’s society and wealth distribution.
It is one of a raft of negatives that have limited the ability of Thailand’s economy to develop in other directions and includes its ageing population and poor education system.
However, Prime Minister Prayut, in his address on Wednesday night, spoke to the people directly.
The country is still suffering from high levels of infection and deaths being reported daily since the third wave broke out in early April this year.
One of the kingdom’s most senior medical expert calls for a brake to be put on reopening to travellers
A senior Thai medical expert, Dr Prasit Watanapa of the Faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University, this week warned the kingdom should be cautious about reopening its borders too quickly to foreigners.
In recent days, Dr Prasit has come out against the approval of the Phuket Sandbox scheme which he thinks should be deferred.
The top doctor fears that the country could well import dangerous variants which may cause problems for the kingdom’s range of vaccines.
On TV, the PM said that calculated risks must now be taken to save the economy and prevent more hardship
On Wednesday, the prime minister appeared to signal that calculated risks were now necessary.
‘I am setting a goal for us to be able to declare Thailand fully open within 120 days from today, and for tourism centres that are ready to do so even faster,’ he said. ‘We cannot wait for a time when everyone is fully vaccinated with two shots, or for when the world is free of the virus, to reopen the country .’
Currently, Thailand has vaccinated up to 5 million people or 7.5% of the population with one dose and 2.5% are fully vaccinated.
The prime minister, on Wednesday, indicated that ten times this can be achieved by mid-October if the government has access to enough vaccine doses.
Public knows the government no longer has a cushion and that the tourism economy is at a dangerous tipping point where it may never return to past glory
His comments are supported by the speed of vaccination seen briefly last week when supplies were made available at critical levels before disruptions emerged.
The public appears enthusiastic to have the country and its economy get back to normal as soon as possible, perhaps knowing that the government no longer has a financial cushion and sensing the dangerous position the economy has arrived in.
The danger, in this instance, is that the foreign tourism industry, which accounts for 20% of employment in Thailand, may not recover for quite some time if at all.
PM optimistic on vaccine supplies as 1.6 million doses came on stream days after the breakdown of vaccination efforts due to lack of supplies
The government, although reeling from the breakdown of its vaccination programme over the weekend, has been somewhat buoyed in the past 24 hours with the news that 1.6 million doses from the Siam Bioscience plant in Pathum Thani will be available in the course of the coming week.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister pointed out that his government has already signed contracts with six vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Sinovac and Sinopharm.
He said over 105 million doses are to be delivered under the agreements with the firms in 2021 which will satisfy the kingdom’s goals of achieving full inoculation of 50 million people by the end of this year.
50 million to have received one dose by mid-October is the PM’s plan of action for reopening
General Prayut plans to ensure that 50 million people have received a first vaccine dose by mid-October when the country plans a return to normal for international visitors.
‘We will continue to seek additional vaccine supplies for next year. Based on our current plans, we will administer an average of around 10 million shots a month from July, so that by early October, nearly 50 million people will have received at least their first shot,’ General Prayut explained.
Return of large numbers of international visitors may need a return to visa on arrival foreign tourism
Many observers believe that, due to the nature of Thailand’s foreign tourism market, it will take full and unrestricted access to the kingdom including the lifting of the Certificate of Entry regime and the reversion to visa on arrival mode for the kingdom to have any chance of reaching the large numbers of foreign tourists seen before the pandemic.
Half Phuket bookings cancelled over new restrictions confirms Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat
The sensitivity of the market towards government restrictions can be seen from confirmation this week by Minister of Tourism and Sports, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, that half of the foreign tourists who had booked to come to Phuket under the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ scheme cancelled their plans after the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA), in a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, raised the number of days that tourists had to spend on the island to 14 from 7 as previously outlined.
Similar sentiments were expressed last week by foreigners in a Thai Examiner Poll after senior officials decided that the bars and entertainment venues in Phuket would not be reopening.
The message is clear, foreign tourists have other options and are quick to exercise their spending power.
Enormous political gamble by the PM
Nonetheless, the Prime Minister is taking an enormous political gamble by adopting this new course as the current levels of infection remain increasingly high and have not been brought under control.
Medical opinion is urging caution as fears grow that the virus may infiltrate itself into the manufacturing sector driving the kingdom’s exports, the key economic engine right now.
Economic experts have highlighted the necessity to reopen to foreign tourism since the start of this year
However, it appears, from the Prime Minister’s speech last night, that he is listening to his economic experts who will have briefed him on the suffering and hardship being experienced by a large segment of Thai society which has links to the foreign tourism industry which generates substantial inward income and inward investment for the country.
He acknowledged this clearly.
‘The time has now come for us to look forward and set a date for when we can fully open our country and start receiving visitors because reopening Thailand is key to reducing the suffering of people who have lost their source of income.’
Small operators selling their homes and cars
Economic experts in Bangkok, the Bank of Thailand and the Finance Ministry have, since the start of this year, identified the urgent need for the Thai economy to regenerate its foreign tourism industry
One tourism businessman told Thai news outlet Thai PBS on Wednesday that many smaller tourist business operators have been forced to sell their cars and homes during the current period of closure simply to survive.
Phuket reopening to go ahead with cabinet approval on Tuesday suggests Prime Minister Prayut
The Prime Minister also appeared to suggest that the Phuket Sandbox scheme will go ahead and be approved by the cabinet when it meets next Tuesday.
However, there are reports that extra conditions and tweaks have been proposed to the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) for its meeting on Friday. This was confirmed by spokesperson Apisamai Srisangson.
‘So the province has agreed to improve public understanding about its Covid-19 safety measures that will be implemented when the Phuket Tourism Sandbox programme begins,’ Ms Apismai told the press. She said weaknesses had been discovered in the plans.
Intensive security protocols to be deployed on Phuket including GPS wristbands, facial recognition technology, roadblocks and a Covid 19 test on arrival
Intensive security protocols will be established on the island with road checkpoints and more instance screening availing both in and out of the island.
It is also reported that all foreign arrivals will be required to wear wristbands with a GPS locator.
The first Covid-19 test will be taken at the airport before visitors are shuttled to their hotels
Checkpoints on the island are to be equipped with facial recognition technology so that any foreigner attempting to breach security will be quickly recognised and taken into custody.
In addition to this, there will be three Covid-19 tests that visitors will be subject to in their initial 14 days stay on the island, with officials also making it clear that any tourist who fails a swab test will be required to go straight into quarantine at their own expense.