Thailand’s planned Sandbox reopening scheme for the resort island of Phuket next month for vaccinated tourists, has had a moderate response. The Phuket Sandbox scheme that is scheduled to commence on July 1st will enable free movement of tourists on the island without self-isolation.
After 14 days the vaccinated tourists will be allowed to travel to other provinces in Thailand.
But there are also a few tricky conditions, and many industry professionals complain that uncertainty and constant rule changes discourage bookings. Furthermore the Phuket Sandbox plan won’t be finalized until the end of this month.
“This is going to be a slow process. Neither of us expect 100% occupancy by July 2nd,” said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association.
Thai Airways is on board, with direct flights from six European cities to Phuket starting July, although it expects only a fraction of the seats to be occupied, with around 100 passengers in the first week, one of the airline’s representatives said.
To an economy dependent on tourism for jobs and consumption, the newcomers will not bring immediate relief, though the lifting of the costly two-week quarantine regime that put tourists off for more than a year offers some hope.
“We are already seeing strong interest, particularly from the Middle East, UK, Europe and Scandinavia, to gradually return to Phuket,” said Lark.
Phuket has been hard hit
Thailand lost around $ 50 billion in tourism revenue last year as overseas arrivals fell 83% to 6.7 million, from a record 39.9 million in 2019. The slump was on global travel restrictions and Thailand’s severe Entry requirements returned. Phuket has been particularly hard hit by job losses and business closings.
The government hopes the Phuket Sandbox will draw 129,000 visitors to the country in the third quarter – a far cry from the average 3.3 million monthly arrivals in Thailand in 2019. Typically a quarter of Thai visitors go to Phuket.
Thailand had only 28,701 visitors in the first four months of this year.
A Phuket hotel owner said the sandbox initiative was “a bunch of cops” that would make little difference, in part because much of the target audience – middle class and wealthy Asians – must be quarantined upon their return home.
“More than 50% of Phuket tourism comes from China,” said the hotelier, who refused to be named.
“It will be difficult without this market.”
The island’s hotel association is forecasting a gradual increase in occupancy to 30-40% by the end of the year, from 10-20% in July-October, including local bookings.
Several major airlines support the plan and offer direct flights, including Emirates, El Al, Air France, Qatar Airways, British Airways and Cathay Pacific according to the Thai Tourism Authority.
Visitors banned from high-risk countries
Singapore Airlines told Reuters that its flights to Phuket will be increased from two a week to seven from July after piquing customer interest.
However, some barriers remain, as some key markets such as China, Japan and Malaysia have restricted exit restrictions while Thai health authorities have banned visitors from some high-risk countries such as India.
Critics also lament onerous conditions such as mandatory swab tests, insurance coverage of at least $ 100,000 for COVID-19 treatment, and use of a tracking application.
For its part, Phuket is trying to vaccinate 70% of its residents – a requirement to reopen – with 60% having received an initial dose so far, a rate well above that of the capital, Bangkok, the epicenter of Thailand’s worst outbreak to date.
Thailand to reopen to visitors within 120 days
Phuket has had single-digit cases on most days since May when it introduced negative test requirements for domestic arrivals. Bangkok, on the other hand, saw hundreds of new cases every day for the past month.
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 sandbox program goes smoothly, authorities plan to replicate it in destinations like Krabi and Koh Samui.
“It’s a completely 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, “said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, Deputy Governor of TAT.
Coverage by Panu Wongcha-um, with additional coverage by Orathai Sriring and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Martin Petty and Tom Hogue
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