As Thailand’s reopening numbers are reassessed, a massive 94% of our readers see the kingdom’s tourism industry as synonymous with nightlife while figures from November 1st to November 13th for the country’s wider reopening looked very healthy. That was before the impact of the November 11th announcement that bars and nightlife would not be opening as planned on December 1st. Thai government officials and the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) have been left wrestling with a dilemma between a clear threat of a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus and the need to maintain the momentum of a relaunch of foreign tourism that is so badly needed to push a precarious economy forward into 2022 and beyond.
Thai officials, this week, appeared to reach out to the nightlife and entertainment industry as the government is moving towards an emphasis on certification of establishments and placing more of the responsibility for a possible earlier reopening of the sector into the hands of business owners themselves who are desperate to begin earning income after nearly two years of losses.
The Thai government is facing a dilemma in its project to reopen the kingdom and help recover the increasingly threatened foreign tourism industry.
The numbers for the reopening from November 1st to November 13th had been welcomed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha and at that point, appeared quite promising.
However, in recent days, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has downgraded its more ambitious target and stated that the kingdom would only see 400,000 visitors in 2021. The initial tallies, however, may still support more bullish forecasts made at the outset of the reopening on November 1st.
Director-general Yuthasak Supasorn had, at the outset, suggested that the reopening would see at least 700,000 arrivals being achieved in 2021.
Kingdom could still attract up to 700,000 visitors for 2021 or 2% of that seen in 2019 based on tallies
By November 18th, the kingdom saw 81,063 people enter under the top tier ‘Test and Go’ scheme.
That represented a substantial acceleration in numbers from the 30,000 recorded in the opening 10 days of this scheme while from November 11th to November 13th, the Prime Minister’s Office revealed that the number of applications being processed under the Thailand Pass entry system had jumped from 147,603 to 173,634 or 26,031 in just two days.
71% of arrivals are fully vaccinated passengers from the 63 countries eligible for ‘Test and Go’, most require manual verification of certificates
The figures, up to that point, tended to suggest that the kingdom could well hit between 700,000 and 800,000 visitors for the year by the end of December assuming a figure of 250,000 for November and 450,000 for December in addition to the 85,845 visitors seen up to the end of October according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s published monthly statistics.
It now appears that these figures have been reassessed to just 320,000 arrivals approximately in November and December by the tourist agency based on its latest projection.
However, figures released by Thailand’s Fiscal Policy Office (FPO) on Monday, showed a different picture again.
The number of tourists before November 1st were represented at just 50,000 while the agency projected an average spend of ฿60,000 compared to the average spend of ฿47,619 as detailed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand for visitors during the first three months of the Phuket Sandbox scheme.
Significantly, the unit within the Finance Ministry has only projected 200,000 tourists for 2021 or 0.5% of that seen in 2019.
This figure will be cause for deep concern if it turns out to be true.
Could boost the country’s overall GP performance
The higher figure would still have only been 2% of the figure seen in 2019 with many foreign tourism business operators now urgently warning that time is running out to salvage an industry where owners have spent nearly two years losing money and with many concerns throughout the kingdom still shuttered.
That figure, if attained, would have boosted the kingdom’s GDP projection which currently targets 200,000 to 300,000 visitors and has the potential to add up to 0.2% to the country’s GDP outcome for the year.
Shaky economic recovery as planners target only a 1% gain in 2021 with rising headwinds in Quarter 4
The kingdom’s economy is projected to grow at a rate of 1% to 1.2% in 2021.
Nightlife venues being encouraged to register for Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus scheme
On Friday, Dr Apisamai Srisangson gave two reasons for the delay in reopening nightlife and pubs.
She said the first was a stubbornly high level of infection in the kingdom which she indicated should be below 5,000 cases per day while venues will also be required to be certified under the Safety and Health Administration (SHA) Plus system.
She urged business concerns to focus on obtaining certification, pointing out that there was only one month to apply for approval which would lead to an inspection and a certification decision.
‘The reopening depends on the readiness of the venues,’ she said. ‘It’s about the management of the premises to meet Covid-19 safety and control standards,’ she further explained as she pointed out that across the country, officials have begun reaching out to venues to brief them on the government’s plan.
A meeting of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) this week is expected to clarify the government’s intentions further on the reopening schedule for the nightlife industry.
Desperate Pattaya business owners plead with authorities to reopen bars, nightlife and allow alcohol
In the meantime, many of the bar and nightlife owners in Pattaya, some of them foreigners to Thailand, are either desperately trying to sell their premises as going concerns or holding out for the restart under enormous personal stress and financial pressure.
Last Tuesday, the Entertainment Venue Operators Club in the city which represents over 400 businesses in Pattaya near Jomtien Beach, submitted a letter to the Mayor of Pattaya, Sontaya Kunplome, calling for the reopening of the nightlife industry so critical to the resort town and the serving of alcohol in restaurants and other venues similar to the four blue zone pilot areas already cleared since November 1st.
The group highlighted the financial catastrophe members had suffered for nearly two years.
It followed criticism from the President of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association, Mr Boonanan Phattanasin, earlier in the month at the failure to allow alcohol to be served in the city which depends so much on the tourist trade.
Mayor of Pattaya supports lifting the alcohol ban
It is understood that the directive to impose the alcohol ban comes from Chonburi’s provincial authorities which Mr Boonanan described as too restrictive.
The mayor of Pattaya has pointed out that his officials are in favour of opening up the city and lifting or relaxing the alcohol restrictions but such moves are being resisted by the provincial disease control committee which is emphasising public health as a priority.
Mayor Sontaya accepted the serving of alcohol in hotels and restaurants would see an improvement in the local economy of Pattaya and that it was a key factor in drawing foreign tourists.
The deferral of the December 1st date has also drawn the ire of other nightlife operators across the kingdom including Phakin Petpol in Nakhon Ratchasima. Mr Phakin is the boss of an entertainment complex called Tawan Daeng in the city centre.
Last week, he lambasted the government for its reversal of course which he said had earlier led his venue and staff to ready themselves for a grand reopening.
‘To be told they now have to be on standby for another month or so, it’s not a pleasant feeling,’ he told reporters.
Deferral of nightlife reopening came just as arrival numbers began to look promising on November 11th
The reopening process was dealt a blow just as arrivals were taking off on November 11th when the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA)’s Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin announce that the reopening of pubs, bars and entertainment venues was being postponed from the initial December 1st date promised by the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha in a memorable televised address just one month earlier on October 11th.
This decision came along with the continued refusal to allow alcohol in sandbox areas outside just four tourist hotspots namely Bangkok, Phuket, Phangnga and Krabi.
The decision to postpone the reopening of the nightlife disappointed many foreign tourists who still regard Thailand as primarily a nightlife destination with sunny beaches and the country’s bar culture seen by them also as daytime attractions.
Strong initial support for the wider reopening
The Prime Minister’s statement on October 11th did suggest that the nightlife scene would return after December 1st which prompted many potential foreign tourists to consider travelling to Thailand in December and January with a Thai Examiner survey showing strong support for the reopening process with 47% of those suggesting they planned to visit the country in the coming three months during the high season for tourism.
‘By December 1st, we will also consider allowing the consumption of alcoholic beverages in restaurants, as well as the reopening of entertainment venues under appropriate health precautions to support the revitalisation of the tourism and leisure sectors, especially during the new year period,’ the Prime Minister said on October 11th.
‘We have to listen to what the Public Health Ministry has to say about the matter as well,’ cautioned PM
One month later, all had changed.
‘We need time from November 15th to January 15th to prepare for the reopening,’ Dr Taweesilp Visanuyothin told the press at a Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) briefing just over 10 days ago when he said that January 16th 2022 would be the earliest these sort of establishments would be allowed to reopen.
In response to the volte-face on his original promise, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha did not labour over an explanation.
‘We have to listen to what the Public Health Ministry has to say about the matter as well,’ he simply replied to reporters when the question was raised.
Minister of Public Health Anutin had earlier expressed unease about the December 1st nightlife reopening
The decision followed unease expressed at the prospect to the reopening of nightlife by Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul with the threat to public health seen as well-founded given the spiral of infection and hospital cases being seen in Europe and the United Kingdom right now which has been very much linked to intense social activities including the reopening of pubs and nightclubs.
The latest Thai Examiner survey of readers has shown alcohol, the nightlife industry and their associated attractions are essential to the country’s foreign tourism industry at least when it comes to visitors from western countries.
Thai Examiner survey shows over 94% of western tourists feel Thailand’s tourism industry and its nightlife are synonymous, a big deal for 61.16%
A survey conducted between November 11th and November 19th but with a relatively low sample of only 370 respondents showed that 94.12% of readers agreed with the statement that foreign tourism in Thailand was ‘synonymous’ with the country’s nightlife industry.
Only 5.88% of respondents disagreed with the statement.
The survey also showed that only 0.6% of respondents consider alcohol as not important to their trip to Thailand with 61.16% saying its availability mattered ‘a great deal’ to their holiday while 26.47% said it mattered ‘a lot’ when visiting. 5.88% said it mattered to a moderate extent.
The combined figure for those who considered the availability of alcohol as a very significant factor in their holiday in Thailand was 87.63%.
National Security Council chief holds out hope to bars and nightlife operators of an earlier reopening
Late last week, as pressure mounted from nightlife operators and bars in Pattaya, the former tourist hotspot and seaside resort whose foreign tourism business base has been left reeling in the wake of the pandemic since April 2020, the Secretary-general of the National Security Council General Supot Malaniyom held out some hope.
However, at the same time, he ruled out any prospect of a reopening by December 1st which was a date that had been taken very seriously by the bar and nightlife operators not only in Pattaya but throughout Thailand.
It was based on the government leader’s undertaking in October when he addressed the nation live on TV to announce the country’s wider reopening and specifically addressed the industry and those who worked within it.
December 1st date for bars and nightlife, a key commitment from the Prime Minister on October 11th
Indeed, sources have confirmed that local officials not only in Pattaya but other cities and urban centres throughout the kingdom had been anticipating a return of the nightlife industry by that date.
The top security official, General Supot, who is also in charge of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), appeared to indicate that government officials are listening to the industry.
In particular, he reaffirmed the Prime Minister’s concerns for the extended range of workers associated with nightlife activities, a point the PM emphasised in his October 11th reopening statements on national TV.
He held out the prospect that reopening of the entertainment sector might occur sometime before January 16th 2022 saying that officials had been impressed by representations from the sector and plans put forward.
Public health concern and threat is real
However, the position remains that the government’s concerns, based on public health, are real and substantial.
‘We’ve discussed it, but the situation isn’t in their favour,’ the top official confirmed. ‘However, as the operators are determined to cooperate and make preparations, we’ll bring up the issue for consideration. I think there is a chance because the proposed measures are really good.’
A key insight into the importance of both the nightlife trade and alcohol can be seen from a picture painted, this weekend, by Dr Preechavude ‘Prab’ Keesin, a well known and colourful Phuket businessman in Patong, the son of former Mayor Pian Keesin.
Patong business leader says the Bangla Road area of the Phuket island resort is a barometer for Thailand’s tourism industry, good atmosphere
Speaking to The Phuket News, he explained that the Bangla Road in Patong, the nightlife centre on the island town, was a good barometer of what is happening with Thailand’s foreign tourism trade.
He explained how important the atmosphere is for foreign tourists.
‘Patong is already well known as a popular area, but Bangla Road is like an index that measures how crowded it is,’ he said. ‘Most of the customers like that it is mostly open-air, and because it is near the beach.’
He already predicts that there will be pressure to protect against the virus if the number of foreign tourist arrivals rises. Business owners will have to play a part in maintaining confidence.
‘It is the current understanding that vaccines will not prevent infections. We still have to protect ourselves, wear a protective mask, wear gloves, maintain social distance, wash our hands with alcohol sanitiser, and so on. Please help us, this is a personal responsibility.’
Only 20% of businesses in Patong now opened
The local business leader estimated that still over four months after the island reopened on July 1st last, only 20% of establishments including hotels had reopened in Patong and these were large business concerns and those near the beachfront.
Despite this, things had certainly improved.
‘We now have employment and the opportunity to do business. It has been quite difficult for quite some time, but our success depends on the government, ourselves, and the community as well, in how strong or how much we fight against the obstacles that arise in this era,’ he revealed. ‘But if we have good protection and have good vaccines, we may be able to restrict the number of infections here, but most importantly. I want to focus more on the perspective of mortality. If there are fewer deaths, then we should be able to relax and be allowed to continue doing business. That is if we don’t let our guard down.’
This may be a clue to how the government plans to address its dilemma.
Inspections of bars, venues that are open and serving alcohol undertaken this week by the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office, no infractions found
This week, also in Patong, the Phuket Provincial Public Health Office, led by Dr Kusak Kukiattikoon, began inspecting all the establishments in the area selling alcohol.
The inspections focused on efforts to prevent COVID-19 transmission and particularly targeted Bangla Road at the heart of Patong where many bars and establishments have already reopened
No infractions were found but a report issued by the body explained that the purpose of the exercise was to ‘raise awareness, recognise and motivate business owners and the public as well as give advice on various practices to comply with COVID-19 prevention and control measures.’
It is, therefore, safe to assume that the government is getting ready to reopen bars and nightlife venues as quickly as possible by emphasising coherent and effective certification.
The situation on the tourist island was summed up by Dr Prab: ‘When it comes to the decision to travel, it’s not just the number of infections alone. Coming to Phuket, they look at how many people have been vaccinated here. That’s part of the safety. When an incident occurs, how good is our public health system at the hospital? The most important thing besides that is how much we can open a business to support them. Both the economic recovery and the public health system must go together.’