The plan to welcome vaccinated visitors to the Thai island of Phuket without quarantine in July, is met with moderate enthusiasm and some doubts from the industry
The "Phuket Sandbox" initiative, which is due to start on July 1, will allow Covid-19 vaccinated tourists to arrive without quarantine and travel freely on Thailand's largest island, Phuket. They will also be able to travel elsewhere in the kingdom after 14 days.
At first glance, this looks like a great opportunity for a privileged vacation, especially since the island, nicknamed the Pearl of Andaman, has hardly been visited for more than a year and thus adds to the package natural attractions reinvigorated as never before.
But as we move towards the concrete, appear all sorts of conditions imposed or modified over the last few weeks by the authorities that somewhat dampen the hopes of a great recovery of tourism. Obligatory passage through approved hotels, multiple PCR tests, expensive Covid-19 insurance, monitoring application, etc.
Uncertainty about conditions
Many industry professionals complain about the uncertainty caused by the constant changes in rules in recent weeks, which they believe have everything to dissuade would-be travelers from making their reservations. The "Phuket Sandbox" plan will probably not be finalized until the end of the month.
"It will be a slow process. None of us expect 100 percent occupancy on July 2," said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association.
"However, we are already seeing strong interest, especially from customers from the Middle East, the UK, Europe and Scandinavia, to gradually return to Phuket," he says.
The quarantine when returning from vacation
Nevertheless, hotel reservations in Phuket were less than 20% occupied on Friday.
And beyond the Thai rules alone, other external factors remain. Some key markets, such as China, Japan and Malaysia, still impose return restrictions, while Thai health authorities have banned visitors from some high-risk countries, such as India.
One Phuket hotel owner, who wished to remain anonymous, believes the sandbox is just a "bunch of nonsense" that will do very little, in part because much of the target audience - middle class and wealthy Asians - must quarantine themselves upon returning home.
"More than 50 percent of Phuket's tourism comes from China," the hotelier recalls. "Without that market, it will be difficult."
Critics also point to certain conditions such as mandatory testing, the use of a tracking app or mandatory insurance covering at least $100,000 for Covid-19 treatment.
Airlines want to believe
Still, several major foreign airlines are backing the plan and offering direct flights, including Emirates, El Al, Air France, Qatar Airways, British Airways and Cathay Pacific, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Singapore Airlines told Reuters that after identifying some customer interest, it would increase its flights to Phuket from two a week to seven starting in July.
Thai Airways is of course getting involved and is offering direct flights to Phuket from six European cities from July, although the Thai airline expects to fill only a portion of its aircraft, with about 100 passengers expected in the first week, according to a group representative.
The government, however, does not expect to welcome more than 129,000 visitors to the country in the third quarter with the Phuket Sandbox, far from the usual numbers.
Thailand only welcomed 28,701 visitors in the first four months of this year.
The island's hotel association predicts a gradual increase in occupancy, from 10-20% between July and October, to 30-40% towards the end of the year, including local bookings.
First injection for 60% of the population of Phuket
For its part, Phuket has rushed to vaccinate 70% of its inhabitants - a condition of the reopening plan -, and 60% of them would have received a first dose so far, a rate much higher than the capital Bangkok and the rest of Thailand.
Phuket has been recording fewer than 10 cases of Sars-Cov-2 infection a day since May, when the island province required visitors from the rest of Thailand to test negative for the virus before entering.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said Thursday that Thailand would reopen to visitors within 120 days, calling it a calculated but necessary risk.
If the "Phuket Sandbox" goes well, authorities plan to replicate the program in destinations like Krabi, Koh Samui and Chiang Mai.
"This is a totally new situation. You are trying to reopen the country to tourism to help the economy but at the same time you have to be careful," says Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor of TAT.
Thailand lost about $50 billion in tourism revenue last year when foreign tourist arrivals plunged 83% from 39.9 million in 2019 to 6.7 million in 2020. A decline attributed to global restrictions on travel in the context of the pandemic and the particularly strict measures imposed by Thailand which for some months simply prohibits the entry of foreigners before imposing the mandatory quarantine. Phuket, which used to welcome 10 million tourists per year, has been particularly affected by job losses and business closures.