Current numbers, trends and feedback from international travellers do not augur well for a recovery of Thailand’s foreign tourism industry in the last quarter of 2021 unless a radical shift occurs in the vaccination drive and confidence that the virus outbreak in the country is under control is achieved. There will also need to be drastic relaxation in regulations imposed on incoming foreign tourists.
The first tourists arrived on Ko Samui on Thursday under the Samui Plus initiative as it is becoming clearer that the reopening of Thailand being rolled out is very much a limited effort at restoring foreign tourism with little hope, at least in the short term, of achieving the critical levels of the past. Only five foreign tourists arrived off the plane on Thursday on Ko Samui to be greeted by officials with less than 100 people booked for the coming three months as restrictions and criteria for entry into the kingdom are simply too burdensome for normal holiday makers.
The first five foreign tourists flew into Ko Samui on Thursday under the new ‘Samui Plus’ initiative approved by the government in association with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and local business interests on the island of Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao which will allow tourists more freedom on visits to the holiday islands although the model is not quite the quarantine free dispensation associated with the Phuket Sandbox scheme launched on July 1st last.
The five visitors that arrived on Thursday included two British nationals, two Germans and a French tourist who will initially be required to stay within the confines of their certified hotels on the holiday island for four days and will also be prohibited from drinking alcoholic beverages for one week.
Minister of Tourism and Sports on hand to greet the 5 European tourists off the plane from Bangkok
The flight, Bangkok Airways PG5125, departed from Bangkok at 10.05 am on Thursday 15th and touched down on the island at 11.05 am.
At the airport to meet the passengers was the Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn as well as the Director-general of the Tourism Authority of Thailand Yuthasak Supasorn and the Governor of Surat Thani province, Wichwut Jinto.
The minister said he was satisfied with the public health measures that have been put in place to protect the public on Ko Samui as Thailand continues with its strategically important but carefully planned reopening of key tourist areas after the Phuket Sandbox went ahead on July 1st.
Tourists to spend 7 days in hotel environs, subject to testing and thereafter limited to ‘sealed routes’
The Samui plus plan allows tourists access to the other islands of Ko Phangan and Ko Tao after 7 days within the confines of their hotels and is subject to controlled or sealed routes.
The minister and other officials were cautious about predicting the numbers of foreign tourists that are expected as part of the programme for the islands in the opening months.
At the outset, there are 177 hotels opened to cater for foreign tourists and domestic visitors with over 8,629 rooms. That is only 26.3% of hotels on the island with 494 hotels and 16,300 rooms still closed up.
Current occupancy rate of 8 to 10% with long-stay guests projected to rise to between 20 and 30%
Officials have suggested that the current occupancy rate is now 8 to 10% based on visitors booked on extended stays but it is expected that this will rise gradually to 20 to 30% in the course of the coming three months up to the end of October as marketing and promotion drives get underway.
At present, there are only 33 bookings for July, 20 for August and only 10 for September.
This is not foreign tourism as Thailand has previously known it but an adjustment to deal with a new environment or the ‘new normal’ with all incoming tourists subjected to Certificate of Entry screening and other onerous conditions.
Surat Thani governor emphasises the controlled and sealed nature of the experience for foreign tourists
Indeed, Governor Wichwut referred to the stringent controls to reassure locals on the islands when he explained the sealed nature of the tourist experience for visitors who after one week will be allowed to visit the other two islands from selected ferry points and will be subjected to sealed routes and three swab test while on the islands for up to 14 days.
He also emphasised the ban on alcohol for the first seven days.
Visitors can be moved to Alternative Quarantine hotels in certain situations linked with cases
Tourists will be staying in SHA-1 certified accommodation but will be subject to COVID-19 testing and can be moved to Alternative Quarantine facilities if the virus situation deteriorates
The cost of a one week stay at an Alternative Quarantine Hotel on the island ranges from ฿35,000 to ฿100,000 but it is pointed out that this includes ฿16,000 in medical costs including 3 swab tests which are priced at ฿8,000 with a ฿4,000 charge for the first swab test.
Under this scheme, if any tourist arrives on a flight with an infected passenger they are free to proceed with their holiday after the first negative COVID-19 swab test conducted during the opening 7 days of the stay. Otherwise, they will be placed in quarantine.
However, if 20 cases within the sealed routes are confirmed or logged at hospitals, then this will mean that all tourists will be confined to Alternative Quarantine facilities.
If this figure rises to 40 cases, then even stricter public health measures will be implemented.
The good news is that not one infection has been detected on the islands within the last week where a large segment of the population is fully vaccinated.
Tourist chief on Ko Samui admits it will be hard going initially for this initiative to attain big numbers
Speaking on Thursday, the President of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui, Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, admitted that the programme will take some time to catch on and only limited numbers were anticipated in the opening three months of the scheme not least because of the surge of the virus nationally which is also featuring prominently in international news coverage with Thailand’s outbreak rising in prominence.
‘We do not expect an influx of international travellers in the third quarter because the country is still dealing with a high number of cases,’ he said.
Minister optimistic about direct flights from Singapore which are due to commence on August 1st
Minister Phiphat was somewhat more positive.
He highlighted that after one week foreign tourists staying on Ko Samui would be free to visit the other two islands while he also thought that direct flights planned by Bangkok Airways from Singapore direct to Phuket from August 1st will give the scheme a much-needed boost.
On Thursday, top officials revealed that another four visitors from Hong Kong and Taiwan were expected on Friday as well as an anticipated visit of press feature writers from 11 publications in the UK, France, Germany, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Escalating virus crisis nationwide not helping
The partial reopening of Ko Samui comes as Thailand finds itself in the grip of an escalating virus crisis and complications over the country’s vaccine rollout which are feeding into growing political tensions both within the coalition government and without as opposition forces tap into a groundswell of popular disillusionment with authorities.
The government of Prayut Chan ocha is nevertheless forced to press ahead with plans to reopen to foreign tourism although the success of these efforts is still not guaranteed after mixed reaction to the Phuket Sandbox scheme from July 1st.
Phuket Sandbox scheme since July 1st has enjoyed a mixed response despite initial enthusiasm
The Phuket scheme was initially greeted with support both inside and outside Thailand when announced.
It received enthusiastic backing from leading travel agency firms and networks around the world as well as airlines.
The chaotic launch of the initiative since and what many prospective foreign travellers see as hyper-regulation in Phuket is off-putting to many would-be travellers who have alternative international destinations to choose from.
This has meant that the international travel industry is sitting on the fence before committing to the Ko Samui initiative.
Delays in issuance of Certificates of Entry
On Thursday, the delays that would-be travellers to Ko Samui are experiencing in obtaining a Certificate of Entry were acknowledged while it was also admitted that wary travel agencies would want to see clearly what the regulations or fine print associated with this initiative are and how it works in reality before recommending it to their customers around the world.
Mr Ratchaporn appeared to accept this when he explained on Thursday: ‘Samui Plus aims to test the waters and prepare operators for more tourists when tourism rebounds.’
Bangkok official vigorously defends the Phuket Sandbox scheme and condemns online ‘fake news’
Meanwhile, earlier this week, a spokesman with the Centre for Economic Situation Administration (CESA) in Bangkok insisted that the Phuket Sandbox, so far, has been a success but complained that it had been impaired somewhat by negative online coverage of the efforts on Phuket to reopen the holiday island.
Mr Thanakorn Wangboonkongchan described many reports as ‘fake news’ and pointed to continued planeloads of foreign tourists landing at Phuket International Airport as a testament to the scheme’s success.
It is reported that over five thousand tourists have now landed in Phuket with a revised target of 14,000 travellers for July.
Shocking story of German woman moved to Alternative Quarantine at her own expense has turned off many would-be travellers to Phuket
Eight foreign tourists tested positive for the COVID-19 virus including two children, a man from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), three women from Myanmar, a Swiss man and two South African visitors.
There was initial consternation when 14 other passengers who had arrived with the UAE tourist were ordered into quarantine followed by 13 of those people later seeking a flight home and departing the island.
It was this aspect of the scheme that greatly troubled potential visitors in the first week with the story of the German woman, Stefanie Korényi, who had been quarantined and forced to pay out ฿37,000 extra, causing damage to the perception of the Phuket reopening plan among foreigners abroad.
Top tourists soured by red tape, hyper-regulation is killing off enthusiasm for the Phuket sandbox among fans
It is not clear if officials have tweaked the regulations concerning such outcomes but in the second week, there have been no such horror reports with many of the later detected infections appearing to be linked to visitors having received their second test on days 6 to 7 days after arrival on the island.
Phuket Deputy Governor: everything is under control the Sandbox is proceeding according to plan
At a press conference this week, Piyapong Chuwong, Deputy Governor of Phuket defended the scheme and made it clear that everything was under control.
‘Although some tourists were found to have Covid-19, this was not unexpected. We have prepared measures to prevent new clusters occurring,’ he told reporters. ‘The infections found among Phuket Sandbox arrivals will not cause the programme to collapse. In this situation, the chance of seeing zero infections is very slim.’
The Tourism Authority of Thailand is still insisting that the scheme can achieve its target of 100,000 visitors for the three months to the end of September pumping ฿8.9 billion into the island’s badly scarred economy.
Real economic consequences if foreign tourism industry fails to rebound as predicted in 2021
The economic consequences for Thailand if foreign tourism fails to return to critical or mass levels could see the anticipated 5% economic growth target in the last quarter melt away.
Earlier this year, the Finance Ministry made it known it was counting on at least 3 million foreign tourists in 2021 but even before the latest Delta wave of infection began in mid-June with hitherto massive numbers, the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC) had predicted a 99% wipeout for the foreign tourism sector compared to 2019 or less than 500,000 visitors.
Numbers right now look disappointing, nothing like the critical mass levels seen before the shutdown of Thai airspace suddenly on the 5th April 2020
The current numbers being seen in Phuket and the monthly tallies from the Tourism Authority of Thailand appear to suggest that even if 8 more key tourist areas such as Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai are reopened, the critical mass normally associated with what was formerly the Thai foreign tourism industry which was shut down by the government in April 2020 when Thailand closed its airspace, is not going to materialise to any extent.
Thailand’s foreign tourist industry shut down on April 5th 2020, just hours after a rebellion by passengers at Suvarnabhumi Airport, most of them returning Thais, who refused to follow protocol just after the Emergency associated with the COVID-19 virus was declared in the kingdom.
It is clear now that the foreign tourism industry as we know it, may not return at all in 2021 or even for the foreseeable future unless there is a radical shift both in the environment and approach.
Baht to strengthen later in the year even after July as foreign tourists will return says top bank economist
Officials at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) have explained that the numbers are also dependent on worldwide conditions for travel and control of the virus situation in the kingdom but many foreign tourists will tell you that it is restrictive regulations including the tortuous Certificate of Entry process itself that makes the prospect of a trip to Thailand simply too unpalatable at this time for anyone without links to the country and who is simply seeking a relaxing few weeks away from home.
What Thailand is offering right now is far from that.
Cut the paperwork and regulation to see foreign tourists flock to Thailand again in large numbers
The large number of tourists seen in Thailand in the past two decades were very much linked to easier and cheaper global travel, internet booking facilities and ease of movement between countries.
Some of these factors are outside the control of authorities here but many still are.
Thailand will have to boost its vaccination drive, bring the virus under control throughout the kingdom and drastically reduce the level of regulation and paperwork required of travellers to come and visit the kingdom if it wants to see tourists once again flocking to its shores and spending hard cash like before.