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Red tape and restrictions suggest a slow Phuket reopening



PHOTO: Phuket's turbulent reopening will likely start very slowly. (via Wikimedia)

With the rollercoaster ride of the Phuket Sandbox reopening scheme, some government officials remain mostly optimistic, while many others are scaling back predictions and expectations. A slow return of tourist to Phuket is forecast as the plan, which won’t be officially approved until just days before the scheduled reopening on July 1, is meeting with a fair amount of blowback as the terms evolve.

The complex approval process had a triumph after being approved by the Centre for Economic Situation on June 4 but now slinks its way through a Rube Goldberg-like legislative path before being truly official. The next step is approval from the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration which is scheduled for June 18, followed by final approval by the cabinet on June 22. But even then the plan is not official until it is published the next week in the Royal Gazette.

This slow process means the Phuket reopening won’t be 100% confirmed until a mere few days before planes are set to touch down at Phuket International Airport.

Proponents of the Sandbox scheme for reopening the country to international tourism without quarantine have pushed hard for Phuket to reopen on July 1. Airlines have scheduled flights, vaccination drives have ramped up. The plan was to welcome back hordes of international tourists to jumpstart Thailand’s tourism economy and put the country back on the radar as everyone’s tropical destination of choice.

Critics say with the restrictions piling on, reopening Phuket on July 1 will be slow at best. Arriving travellers will have to stay 14 days in the island province before being allowed to travel anywhere, including popular day trips like James Bond Island and Koh Phi Phi. Previously, people seemed accepting of a 1 week “soft quarantine” like this, but the extension to 2 weeks has been met with a huge backlash.

While spending 2 weeks in an approved (and often expensive) hotel and receiving 3 Covid-19 tests during your stay (who pays for the tests have not been confirmed), travellers will be limited for activity options as bars and entertainment venues will be closed. Reopening Phuket clubs has been slow as health officials scurry to prevent any additional Covid-19 in the province before the Sandbox launch.

Health officials say the extension to 14 days of observation on arrival is necessary, though most accept this will slow the number of immediate arrivals to Phuket by half. The managing director of the Asia Hotel Group said the reopening was essentially starting from scratch and building from nothing. They predict that tourism might pick up to 30-40% of pre-Covid levels by mid-2022, but all recovery will be very slow.

Hotels had converted to state quarantine facilities, ASQ properties and “hospitels” in an attempt to fill beds and help in Covid-19 containment and treatment efforts, but with vaccination increasing, the slow of Thai nationals returning home, and sandbox reopenings like Phuket, these niche facilities are less needed and will gradually convert back to regular hotels. The Asia Hotel Grop director said most participants in these programs did not turn any profit, just hedged the continual monthly losses due to the pandemic.

Now he suggests the Sandbox schemes should be viewed as a test run, not a floodgate reopening. Tourism returning to Phuket and Thailand will be slow, and a balance must be struck between public health regarding Covid-19 and the economic gains of tourism. Some destinations may suffer from domestic tourists shying away from locations open to foreigners returning for fear of Covid-19 infection.

The 14-day screening is a necessary evil in that respect – a stopgap between full reopening and complete Coronavirus lockdown. And everyone would be wise to manage their expectations of the rollout of international tourism’s return.

SOURCE: Bangkok Post


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Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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