Thailand opens to foreign tourists

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Thailand opens to foreign tourists

After a wait of 15 months, we finally welcomed our first clients back to Asia last week. The island of Phuket opened up to vaccinated tourists without quarantine restrictions as part of the Phuket Sandbox model on 1st July and a small number of foreign visitors made their way to Thailand.

More than 600 Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA+) certified hotels are welcoming tourists along Phuket’s western seashore and their feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Whereas entertainment opportunities are still limited, people are having a good time enjoying the properties, beaches and activities.

The Phuket Sandbox model has been heavily criticised in the press in past weeks. It is true that the regulations are strict and changed frequently prior to the official start. These regulations are not necessarily an incentive for foreign tourists to travel to Phuket since they have easier access with no or fewer regulations in other destinations outside of Asia. It is also true that most likely the initial number of visitors will in fact not be tourists but Thai and foreigners resident in Thailand who will prefer a stay in Phuket over spending 15 days in quarantine in a hotel room in Bangkok, or the surrounding provinces.

We have to appreciate though that the Thai government and particularly the governor of Phuket province, as well as the Tourism Authority of Thailand have taken steps to open the country to foreign tourists. Their plan became reality. This clearly is a first step, a trial run, but it is a first step in the right direction. We have to commend Thailand for being the first country in South-East Asia to open up to foreign tourists without quarantine. They are once again the pioneers.

All plans by other countries in South-East Asia to ease travel restrictions, such as the travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong were postponed multiple times and so far this scheme has not materialised. A potential Bali opening received a lot of publicity but never had an official starting date or regulations on what the opening would look like. It was postponed by the Indonesian government in the first week of July to a future starting date.

The Thai government is going ahead with opening its second destination and will open Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao to foreign visitors on 15th July under the Samui Plus model. Similar to the Phuket Sandbox model, the regulations are even stricter and only a few tourists will book holidays to stay on these islands, but they will be welcomed with open arms and be able to enjoy the legendary Thai hospitality, even if many shops, restaurants and spas remain closed for a while longer.

The Thai government’s initiative has prompted other governments in the region to look at ways to open their countries to international tourists. Vietnam contemplates a model where the island of Phu Quoc might become the first destination in the country to welcome foreign visitors. Similarly, Malaysia is discussing a possible opening of Langkawi. These are all plans at the moment without official go-aheads but it is encouraging to see that after Thailand’s opening of Phuket they are also looking at ways to get their tourism industry re-started ‘island style’.

The Phuket Sandbox model became a reality because of a major shift in Thai policy. In a national address to the nation on 16th June, the Thai prime minister declared it is the goal of the country to fully open Thailand to tourism within 120 days and for tourism destinations that are ready earlier to do so faster.

He said, and I quote: “I know this decision comes with some risk because when we open the country there will be an increase in infections, no matter how good our precautions. But, I think, when we take into consideration the economic needs of people, the time has now come for us to take that calculated risk.

“Our national policy must now evolve and we must look on this virus just as we would on the many other diseases that are in the world and with which we must learn to live.” This policy is a U-turn from the previous ‘we must avoid the virus at all cost’ containment policy.

Singapore’s new policies even go a step further. At the end of June, Singapore’s Covid-19 task force proposed to stop lockdowns and mass contact tracing and allow for a return to quarantine-free travel, as well as the resumption of large gatherings.

The statement that Singapore would stop counting daily Covid-19 cases made international headline news. The proposed policy is a major change from the previous ‘zero transmission’ model which was based on stringent quarantine regulations. The realisation that it will be impossible to maintain this policy with the spread of the new virus variants prompted Singapore’s trade minister to state: “The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst.”

The key condition for all these policies to work is a successful roll-out of each country’s vaccination programme. Singapore is on track to have 75 per cent of its population vaccinated by October. Thailand’s objective is to vaccinate 70 per cent of its population by October, a target which experts say will be difficult to achieve considering the present roll-out challenges and timetable.

At the moment, a widely publicised concern in the press is that with rising Covid case numbers in Thailand, the current opening policy might be temporarily delayed. I need to clarify here that neither Phuket nor Koh Samui has seen any large increase in Covid cases in the past weeks – this as these two islands have the highest percentage rate of vaccinated residents in the country.

This first week of the Phuket Sandbox saw 2,177 international tourists disembark at Phuket Airport, and at the time I wrote this article, only three people had tested positive. This is reassuring the Thai authorities that the model is working.

Ultimately, strict and overly complicated regulations for travel to South-East Asia will have to be abolished for vaccinated tourists and international travellers must be guaranteed quarantine-free travel without restrictions. Only this will really re-start the tourism industry, generate jobs and contribute to the economy in a major way.

Asian Trails Thailand has been updating you regularly on the Phuket Sandbox and Samui Plus models. Any questions or uncertainties, or in case you did not get our updates, please get in touch with your Asian Trails contact.

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