Protests from small business operators who feel excluded from the reopening process in Phuket on Friday drew a clear response from Deputy Governor Pichet Panapong who confirmed the law but also pointed out that there will be a growing market from non-SHA plus operators.
As Thailand opens up to the world, smaller business owners including small hotels, guest houses and bus operators are wondering if this week will see a return to normalcy. A key problem for many is the new SHA plus certification requirement but a senior official in Phuket has pointed out that vaccinated tourists from 63 countries, who have been exempted from quarantine, are free to stay and do business wherever they like in Thailand after the first night and a negative COVID-19 test.
On Saturday evening, Thailand extended the list of no quarantine countries from 46 to 63 with a formal announcement form the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok. The announcement, dated the 30th of October, includes India as well as 16 other countries now listed as ‘low risk’ and eligible for the ‘Test and Go’ relaxed regime but still excludes Russa.
It comes as Thailand’s main airport Suvarnabhumi Airport is gearing up to receive 70,000 passengers on Monday with at least 7,000 of them projected to be foreign tourist arrivals.
Responding to spontaneous protests in Phuket this week, Deputy Governor Pichet Panapong pointed out to irate small business owners that the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus certified hotel and tourist service scheme will not be mandatory for many foreign tourists arriving in Thailand from Monday, November 1st, except for the first night, under the first tier ‘Travel and Go’ package as outlined by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Entry into the country, however, for foreign tourists under this scheme is dependent on a one night stay which includes the cost of a COVID-19 PCR test but foreign tourists are thereafter free to go and stay where they wish as any Thai national can also do.
This was a key commitment of Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha in his live, nationwide TV address on October 11th and has been confirmed by subsequent orders.
Vaccinated tourists from 62 countries and Hong Kong enjoy freedom in Thailand after their first night
However, vaccinated tourists arriving from outside the 62 countries and the territory of Hong Kong are still obliged to follow the Sandbox programmes within Blue Zones and therefore are obliged to spend 7 nights at one of the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus certified hotels.
Unvaccinated arrivals are required to stay at alternative quarantine hotels where they are subject to a 10-day quarantine programme including tests.
Hotels in Bangkok have been scrambling to seek and obtain approval to participate in the SHA Plus scheme with the latest reports showing that already 100 out of 300 applicants have been approved.
Small business operators protest the exclusionary nature of the SHA plus scheme and problems joining it
The protest in Phuket on Friday involved small business people who were protesting at the limitations that the scheme is imposing on their ability to do business and find customers as well as others who found it difficult to have their hotels and business services approved by authorities.
About 100 people turned out to protest at the local office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) in what was a peaceful protest observed by police.
The situation regarding restrictions imposed by the Phuket Sandbox scheme which was the initial pilot programme for foreign tourism and which opened on July 1st has reportedly generated enormous dissatisfaction among small business owners who are not normally politically aware but have begun to mobilise in recent months seeking a restart to the foreign tourism industry at a grassroots level.
The announcement by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha on October 11th and subsequent clarifications of a wider reopening has been welcomed by the business people but they fear they may be excluded by the strict conditions and limitations imposed by the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus scheme.
Unlicensed Thai hotels seeking reform of the law to allow for smaller operators at different levels
This includes a provision restricting approval to only licensed hotels which, in recent weeks, has led to calls from politician Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan, the leader of the new Thai Srang Thai Party, on a visit to Phuket, to meet business operators, for an extension of a law allowing unlicensed hotels to participate and for an overhaul of the legal framework to allow for different types of accommodation to be licenced according to different levels of service and standards.
Calls for a new hotel law with different levels to create more competition within the hotel industry
At Friday’s rally, many protesters claimed that they had been out of business since April 2020.
They included private bus hire operators and small hotels which are now looking for the opportunity to relaunch their business concerns.
Operators have had no income for nearly 2 years
One of the small business people taking part in the protest, Ms Thipsukhon Thongton, told reporters that many business owners have had no income for nearly two years and were having difficulty understanding how to take part in the government’s Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus programme while others could not meet the standards required.
‘Applying through online channels only is very complex with procedures and methods,’ she said. ‘Many operators do not have expertise in using the system. The application cannot be accessed. And there are no personnel to contact for help in applying. Approval takes a long time for unknown reasons.’
She said that many small operators feel excluded from what they believe is a new, controlled approach to tourism.
She claimed this environment is leading to frustration and disharmony in Phuket as the new regime is contributing to further inequality and hardship.
Many business owners feel that they are being prevented from reaching incoming customers.
Phuket’s Deputy Governor confirmed the legal situation but pointed to the more liberal terms of this reopening which allow tourists more freedom
In response to the protesters, the Deputy Governor of Phuket, Pichet Panapong, affirmed the law concerning hotels and the sandbox programme.
He confirmed that current rules exclude smaller hotels that cannot meet the standards, as well as unlicensed hotels after an exemption period in respect of the law, which expired in August this year.
However, he did point out that vaccinated foreign tourists from the 63 countries and territories who will be arriving from Monday will be able to switch hotels and support any business concern they choose to after spending one night in Phuket after receiving a negative Covid 19 test under the new, more liberal rules for this select group.