BANGKOK, June 18 (Reuters) – Thailand’s planned reopening of the resort island of Phuket next month to vaccinated visitors, bypassing quarantine requirements, has met with a lukewarm response, with hotel reservations indicating planned occupancy less than 20% so far.
The “Phuket Sandbox” initiative from July 1 will allow free movement on the island for tourists fully vaccinated against COVID-19, without self-isolation on arrival. They will be given the green light to travel elsewhere in Thailand after 14 days.
But there are also a few tricky conditions, and many industry professionals have complained that uncertainty and constant rule changes deter bookings. The plan will not be finalized until the end of the month.
“It will be a slow process. None of us expect 100% occupancy on July 2nd, ”said Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotels Association.
Thai Airways (THAI.BK) is on board, with direct flights from six European cities to Phuket starting in July, although it only anticipates a fraction of the seats occupied, with around 100 passengers in the first week. , said one of the airline’s representatives.
For an economy dependent on tourism for employment and consumption, newcomers will not provide immediate relief, although removing the costly two-week quarantine requirements that have deterred tourists for more than a year offers a little hope.
“We are already seeing strong interest, particularly from the Middle East, UK, Europe and Scandinavia, to gradually return to Phuket,” said Lark.
Thailand lost about $ 50 billion in tourism revenue last year when foreign arrivals plunged 83% to 6.7 million, from a record 39.9 million in 2019. The drop was attributed to global restrictions travel and Thailand’s strict entry requirements. Phuket has been particularly affected by job losses and business closures.
The government expects the Phuket Sandbox to attract 129,000 visitors to the country in the third quarter, a far cry from the 3.3 million average monthly arrivals in Thailand in 2019. Typically, a quarter of Thai visitors make it to Phuket.
Thailand only received 28,701 visitors in the first four months of this year.
A Phuket hotel owner said the sandbox initiative was ‘a bunch of bulls’ that would make little difference, in part because a large portion of the target audience – the middle class and wealthy Asians – must self-quarantine upon their return home.
“More than 50% of tourism in Phuket comes from China,” said the hotelier, who wished to remain anonymous.
“Without this market, it will be difficult. “
The island’s hotel association has forecast a gradual increase in occupancy rate from 30 to 40% towards the end of the year, from 10 to 20% from July to October, which includes local bookings.
Several major airlines are backing the plan and offering direct flights, including Emirates, El Al (ELAL.TA), Air France (AIRF.PA), Qatar Airways, British Airways and Cathay Pacific (0293.HK), according to the Authority. tourism. of Thailand (TAT).
Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) told Reuters that its flights to Phuket will drop from two to seven per week from July, after drawing interest from customers.
But a few hurdles remain, with restrictions on outgoing movement in some key markets, like China, Japan and Malaysia, while Thai health officials have banned visitors from some high-risk countries, like India.
Critics also complain of onerous conditions, like mandatory swab testing, insurance coverage of at least $ 100,000 for COVID-19 treatment, and use of a tracking app.
For its part, Phuket has rushed to vaccinate 70% of its residents – a condition of reopening – of which 60% have received a first dose so far, a rate well above the capital Bangkok, epicenter of the worst epidemic of Thailand to date.
Phuket has registered single-digit cases almost daily since May, when it introduced negative testing requirements for domestic arrivals. Bangkok, on the other hand, recorded hundreds of new cases every day over the past month.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday that Thailand would reopen its doors to visitors within 120 days, and called it a calculated but necessary risk. Read more
If the Sandbox program runs smoothly, authorities plan to replicate it in destinations like Krabi and Koh Samui.
“It’s 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, ”said Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor of TAT.
Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, with additional reporting by Orathai Sriring and Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Martin Petty and Tom Hogue
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