PM greets foreign tourists at the airport in Phuket with smiles and selfies after earlier telling an audience on the island that the country is in trouble as the government in Bangkok outlined stronger controls and public health measures for the Phuket Sandbox while General Prayut lent his support to the scheme, a pilot for the further reopening of Thailand’s foreign tourism industry planned for mid-October.

Thai Prime Minister, Prayut Chan ocha, was at Phuket International Airport on Thursday to welcome the fourth flight of the day to the holiday island as part of the ‘Sandbox’ scheme, a pilot which represents the kingdom’s hope of restarting its dormant foreign tourism industry between now and the end of the year. However, it comes as chaos and confusion plagued the plan even up to 36 hours before the first visitors flew in on Thursday when required documentation necessary for tourists could not be issued until formal confirmation of the measure was published in the Royal Gazette on Tuesday night.  

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha ended a long day at Phuket International Airport where he greeted foreigners off the 5 pm flight from Singapore, the fourth flight of the day to arrive in Phuket bringing foreign tourists under the Phuket Sandbox scheme. Speaking at an event earlier in the afternoon in the centre of Phuket, the PM spoke openly and frankly to the crowd about the crisis facing the country as Thailand, on Thursday, announced a record number of deaths from the virus and as the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) confirmed that a 4th wave of the disease, driven by the Indian or Delta variant, is underway.

The Thai Prime Minister arrived in Phuket on Thursday morning to take part in events on the island as it welcomed its first international flights as part of the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ tourist scheme which opens the island up to fully vaccinated tourists without quarantine.

Having flown into Phuket with his delegation earlier, he was at Chatchai Pier Checkpoint at 8.40 am to inspect the security operation in place there to screen and check Thai nationals entering the island from the mainland. 

Only those who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to enter the holiday province without quarantine.

PM tells his Phuket audience that the country is in trouble but that he would not get discouraged

In the afternoon on Phuket, the PM attended an event themed ‘Hug Thai Hug Phuket’ at which he admitted the current virus crisis is escalating and also that he had never run a business before.

However, the PM told his audience he would use his intelligence to overcome the challenges and he would not become discouraged even though he admitted the country is in trouble.

‘Everyone is worried I’ve never run a business and don’t have any business. But I’m ready to lead by consulting from all relevant departments. Ministers of all ministries. To drive the cabinet, then consider with the cabinet how to spend the budget. Today we know our problems. It’s not that you are in trouble alone. The country is in trouble. The government is in trouble. What about the budget that it can manage with less? Because we have to take care of the Thai people, brothers and sisters. Many things had to be reduced, had to stop, had to be postponed, but I have not become discouraged. I will try to use my intelligence to manage various budgets that are the most worthwhile.’

Phuket reopening getting up holidaymakers noses with no less than 5 Covid-19 tests to be paid for

He was speaking as government spokesperson, Trisulee Traisanakul, at Government House in Bangkok was outlining further measures to strengthen public health services on Phuket to oversee the sandbox project including increased surveillance, security and stronger laboratory test facilities.

Last-minute red tape issue just 36 hours before tourists were due to fly in causes cancellations

However, there are already concerns about the prospects for success of the scheme after a barrage of last-minute changes and restrictions turned off a large number of foreign tourists who had earlier expressed strong interest in visiting Phuket, ranked by Mastercard as the 14th most popular tourist destination in the world when it notched up 9.89 million visitors in 2019.

Problems and ongoing uncertainty with the scheme ran right up to just 36 hours before it went ahead after a problem emerged at the beginning of the week when it was discovered that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was not issuing Certificates of Entry specifically for the programme.

Officials at the ministry were waiting for the official authorisation of the scheme which only came on Tuesday night when the final text and clearance was published in the Royal Gazette.

Certificate of Entry scheme is a block to visitors and any hope of a return to the sort of visitor volume seen before last year’s shutdown of the country

This meant that the only basis that such certificates could be granted up to that point was for stays at quarantine hotels, the initial route for foreigners entering Thailand opened last year and which will still run in parallel for unvaccinated tourists entering Thailand at other locations in the kingdom.

Many foreigners, from the outset, have expressed disinterest in any scheme as long as such an advance certification requirement is in place at all.

It is believed to be a key impediment to Thailand achieving the sort of volume seen prior to the closure of the country in April 2020 before which travellers from many countries could fly in and get a visa on arrival at the airport.

First flight that arrived this morning was operated by Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi with 23 passengers

The first flight, on Thursday, was Etihad Airways from Abu Dhabi which arrived at 10.20 am which was initially reported to have 49 passengers aboard but ultimately only delivered 23 onto the island. 

This was followed at 12.05 pm by a Qatar Airways flight from Doha and an EL AL flight from Tel Aviv in Israel which flew in at 1.45 pm.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha was at Phuket International Airport to welcome a Singapore Airlines flight with a range of nationalities aboard who had earlier flown into the island state on their way to holiday in Phuket.

At the airport, the PM stopped to talk with incoming tourists in the company of Deputy Prime Ministers Supattanapong Punmeechaow and Anutin Charnvirakul, the Minister of Public Health. He appeared in good spirits.

Many tourists were alarmed at the confusion and cancelled their bookings just days before flying

The delayed announcement of the final regulations and authorisation for the scheme resulted in last-minute cancellations over the previous 96 hours as many tourists expressed alarm that the paperwork they required to enter Thailand was not being made available.

This caused them to cancel their hotel bookings and flights despite assurances from officials.

The problem was confirmed by Yuthasak Supasorn, the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), who personally gave an assurance that foreign visitors arriving in Phuket as part of the Sandbox scheme would not be required to stay in a quarantine facility but qualified this by saying that is would only be the case where they had not booked before the new process rolled out by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Tourism Authority of Thailand boss explained the nature of the problem and gave assurances to visitors

He indicated that the new facility had opened on Monday at the Foreign Ministry but explained that officials there were not in a position to issue the Certificate of Entry until the official authorisation was published formally on the government’s Royal Gazette. 

This only happened on Tuesday night, approximately 36 hours before the first flight was due to fly in.

‘We reassured travellers that their certificates would be approved and flights to Phuket were confirmed,’ the tourist agency boss disclosed.

Mr Yuthasak said there would be no further obstacles for foreign tourists interested in booking a holiday in Phuket and he foresaw the Certification of Entry process taking no longer than three to five days for prospective tourists to complete in the future.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman explained the new Certificate of Entry process was now functioning

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the ministry, Tanee Sangrat, said Royal Thai Embassies and Consulates across 63 countries and territories were now able to operate a Certificate of Entry process to issue the required documentation for travellers to Phuket.

‘Those who wish to enter the sandbox must complete their COE registration no more than 30 days before their departure,’ he outlined.

He indicated already 4,100 people had registered for a Certificate of Entry and many had already been processed.

He explained the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health had been able to verify 500 certificates of vaccination from applicants since June 29th giving some insight into the complexity and nature of the bureaucratic activity involved in the cumbersome admission process.

Last-minute tweak to the requirements requiring a payment receipt for hotel accommodation booked before a certificate of entry is issued

The ministry also announced another tweak to the requirements, during the last minute emergency announcing that a paid receipt for hotel bookings will also now be required before the entry document is issued in addition to other requirements such as a Covid-19 test within 72 hours of flying, certification of being fully inoculated by a World Health Organisation (WHO) approved vaccine for at least 14 days and health insurance coverage up to $100,000 to include cover in respect of Covid-19.

The number of certificates being processed by the ministry seems small when compared to a projected 100,000 foreign tourists expected in Phuket in the three months from July 1st to the end of September.

These visitors are expected to spend ฿8.9 billion in a local economy that has been impoverished and decimated since the closure of the foreign tourism industry last year.

Phuket’s economy has been devastated since its closure to foreign tourism income last year

In May, giving his ardent support to the initiative, Deputy Governor of Phuket, Pichet Panapong, pointed out that the average income on the island had fallen to below the Thai poverty level or ฿2,000 per month.

Full reopening in Phuket needed to avert a financial catastrophe with plummeting incomes on the island

It has left many small businesses unable to reopen even with this latest initiative as its restrictive nature means that smaller operators are bound to lose out, at least for now.

Calls for loans to small-time tourism concerns on the island who do not benefit from the scheme as it is

Srangsan Thongtan of the Phuket Tourism Entrepreneur Development Association called on the government to find loans for small scale operators on the island, left out in the cold by the reopening. 

He points out that they lack the financial wherewithal to relaunch their businesses and are not included in the island’s demanding safety certification process which has excluded smaller tourism concerns in the name of public health safety.

This has also driven up costs to tourists planning on visiting Phuket who report a jump in accommodation costs of 250 to 400% with only 20% of the island’s hotels open.

‘They will see buildings on sale, buildings for rent, shops closed, convenience stores closed. Do you think it’s a good environment for tourists? No,’ said Mr Srangsan. He said that tourism-related small businesses were urgently in need of soft loans to rebuild. ‘It’s very hard to open, we don’t have the budget, we don’t have money to repair, repaint everything to bring our business back.’

Thailand’s tourism industry will take 5 years to recover from this crisis as jobs continue to be lost

This week, the Tourism Council of Thailand President Chamnan Srisawat revealed that 550,000 jobs were lost in the tourist sector just in the last three months as business concerns continue to close. This brings the total number of jobs lost to 2 million since the crisis began.

Many are in tourist hotspots such as Phuket.

The scale of the damage to the country’s tourism industry can be seen from comments made recently by Bank of Thailand Governor Sethaput Suthiwartnarueput who estimated that it will be five years before Thailand’s lucrative foreign tourism industry recovers. 

That recovery may well come too late for many small business owners whose concerns will have been long closed leaving them struggling with the financial consequences of failure.

Spa owner cannot afford to reopen her business

In Phuket, on Wednesday, one spa owner Natchakanya Sanguanwong explained that the controlled nature of this Phuket sandbox scheme and the relatively low level of visitors means that it would not justify her reopening her once-thriving spa business.

‘Our spa couldn’t reopen because it requires the cost of utilities, staff, and rent,’ she said.

426 inbound flights booked for July

Officials point to 426 inbound flights to the island which are expected to bring in 8,281 visitors in July with an average of 13 flights a day.

Meanwhile, the Thai government struggles to deal with what officials with the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) on Thursday suggested was indeed a 4th wave of infection driven by the Indian or Delta variant of Covid-19 which is up to 60% more infectious.

There is, worryingly for the government, mounting public opposition to both the planned reopening to foreign tourism and further public health measures.

Thailand reported a record 57 deaths on Thursday with 5,533 new infections.

Surveys last weekend showed that, nationwide, three-quarters of Thais opposed reopening the country to vaccinated tourists as planned in mid-October. 

Support for foreign tourists in Phuket and Pattaya

However, there is support for the return of foreign tourists in Phuket with 74% of the public giving the present scheme a vote of approval and an impressive 84% in Pattaya which is currently seeking approval for a scheme of its own from August 1st.

Chiang Mai scheduled for August 1st reopening with 4 key districts aiming for herd immunity

The figures were significantly lower for Ko Samui where a similar scheme is going ahead this month with 39% public approval and a 40% support rate among the public in Chiang Mai which has its own more controlled reopening plan currently on the drawing board.

Join the Thai News forum, follow Thai Examiner on Facebook here
Receive all our stories as they come out on Telegram here
Follow Thai Examiner here

Further reading:

Phuket reopening getting up holidaymakers noses with no less than 5 Covid-19 tests to be paid for

Prayut says Thailand will revert to normal for tourism from mid-October as Phuket set to reopen

Closure of Phuket bars and alcohol restrictions turn off prospective foreign tourist says survey

Blow for travellers: strict rules, no bars and entertainment venues allowed to open in Phuket

Phuket plan is going ahead despite cabinet referral with TAT targeting 3 million visitors by the end of 2021

Phuket still to reopen by July 1st but key economic agency predicts a 99% wipeout in tourist arrivals

Thailand still plans to attract foreign tourists in the last quarter of 2021 targeting 4 million visitors

Wave of calamity scuppers any foreign tourism recovery with even 7% of visitors now in doubt

UK variant driving the 3rd virus wave in Thailand may have come from Phnom Penh in Cambodia

Thai economy is still in reverse despite rising confidence and a virus threatening a 3rd wave

Reopening of Phuket still not officially approved although it is the ideal test for a broader move

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

Economy to rebound as the year progresses driven by exports and a return of mass foreign tourism

Door closing on quick foreign tourism return as economic recovery is delayed to the end of 2022

Phuket’s plan to self vaccinate on hold as Interior Ministry orders private sector out of vaccine deals

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

Fact – only 6,556 visitors arrived in Thailand last month compared to 3.95 million in December 2019

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

Finance Minister says economy must pivot away from tourism with a switch to S-Curve industries

Thailand’s tourism boss targets thousands instead of millions as public health is prioritised above all

Thailand unlikely to reopen doors to mass-market tourism before the end of 2021 until after a full vaccination