Passengers wait for an RT-PCR swab test to be performed in the arrival area of Phuket airport, as the country welcomed its first group of fully vaccinated tourists without quarantine on November 1. AFP
After last year’s peak season became a missed opportunity due to border closures, tourism companies started pushing the Phuket and Samui Plus sandbox pilot programs in July this year, starting a long way to recovery.
The pilots moved Thailand forward and helped pave the way for the country to reopen on November 1.
The industry may not be able to attract the volume of travelers it once did, but the mistakes of the past six months have presented valuable lessons for Thai tourism as it struggles to find a way to come out of his worst crisis.
COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY
Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew said the biggest challenge in launching the sandbox was communicating with locals, who had to be on the same page before they could speak to national and global communities.
“Phuket depends on tourism and has suffered a lot from the Covid epidemic, but people were ready to work together to make the sandbox a reality, which is the only way for us to survive,” he said. declared.
Government and local authorities need to create a clear and unified message, while listening to feedback from tourists to develop policies and procedures that meet their demand, said Dirk De Cuyper, Managing Director of S Hotels & Resorts, listed in SET.
“Thailand competes with many other global destinations and we can see ourselves as a popular destination, but customers will not visit us if they do not understand the entry requirements,” said De Cuyper.
EASE OF TRAVEL
The key method for generating more tourism demand from a sandbox system was to simplify travel regulations as much as possible, said Kongsak Khoopongsakorn, chairman of the southern section of the Thai Hotels Association (THA).
During the early stages of the Phuket sandbox, strict health and safety measures were implemented requiring several forms of documentation, including the entry certificate system, mandatory RT-PCR testing, and blanket coverage. $ 100,000 health insurance to test reopening procedures and ensure safety. .
Once the Phuket sandbox model is proven safe, a nationwide reopening in November could proceed with fewer travel regulations, he said.
In terms of quarantine, Ratchaporn Poolsawadee, chairman of the Koh Samui Tourism Association, said the reopening of Koh Samui on July 15 was a step into the unknown.
Upon reopening, organizers had to listen carefully to comments from locals while facing a spike in positive tests among tourists coming to the island, he said.
At first, Samui had to impose a quarantine zone to ensure the safety of residents, although visitors would have preferred to experience a trip without a quarantine, Mr Ratchaporn said.
He said the main purpose of Samui Plus was to serve as a test for the national reopening plan.
The province quickly learned that a quarantine requirement was a barrier to improving demand, Ratchaporn said.
The government and the private sector had to adapt the plan over the next few months by relaxing the rules and costs to improve the island’s competitiveness, he said.
Kongsak said interprovincial travel restrictions such as the ban on domestic flights significantly affected domestic and international travelers who wanted to explore other parts of the country after completing their required stay in the sandbox. The ban meant they had to use tedious night buses instead.
Moreover, the travel rules for the province at the time, requiring both a vaccine certificate and a negative test result, also deterred tourists from Phuket, he said.
Phisut Sae-Khu, chairman of the eastern section of THA, said establishments in Pattaya were not allowed to sell alcoholic beverages during the early stages of the reopening, which was inconvenient for tourism.
Hotels were unable to serve alcohol and received complaints from guests, but tourists could still buy alcoholic beverages from convenience stores and consume them in their accommodation, Mr Phisut said.
He said drinking alcohol in a restaurant is part of food culture among foreigners and will not cause new clusters of infections, as seen in pubs and nightlife venues.
To maintain the momentum of the reopening, alcohol sales should be permitted in hotels and restaurants certified by the Safety and Health Administration to ensure a high level of safety and to help operators increase their revenues, a said Mr. Phisut.
PRIORITY TO IMMUNIZATION
The main criterion for reopening in each zone is mass vaccination, which should cover at least 70% of the population to ensure some level of protection, he said.
“If the vaccine distribution to the main tourist destinations had been carried out efficiently, Pattaya would not have suffered a delay in the third quarter,” said Mr. Phisut.
He said Pattaya wanted to welcome tourists from July, such as in Phuket, but had to postpone its reopening several times due to low vaccination rates.
The area finally reopened in November, along with several other tourism-dependent provinces.
Commercial flights from countries that are important sources of inbound visitors, such as Russia and India, have not fully resumed to support the flow of travelers.
Russia has just authorized the resumption of commercial flights to Thailand and other countries on November 9, while India has maintained its bans on international flights, except for the destinations in the air bubble. Thailand does not have an air bubble deal with India.
Mr Phisut said demand from Indian tourists could increase if air links resume.
Russia is not on the list of countries with minimum quarantine under the “Test & Go” program due to its current virus situation, which means that inbound tourists must enter through a sandbox, reducing demand from this country, he said.
NATIONAL VIRUSAL SITUATION
The list of low-risk countries eligible for the Test & Go program is enough to boost travelers’ confidence, said Punlop Saejew, chairman of the Chiang Mai Tourism Council.
However, he said it was important that daily cases in Thailand, especially in areas that attract tourists, be reduced until the country is once again recognized as a safe destination for travelers.
Inclusion of Thailand on safety lists means travelers will not be quarantined on their return, as many tourists from Asian countries are still under mandatory quarantine after visiting Thailand, Punlop said. .
After the country’s reopening and further easing of daily activities, more hotels in Bangkok have been reopened for tourists, hosting international airline crews as well as national meetings and seminars, said Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the THA.
The number of guests rose steadily in November, but hotels that previously only hosted group trips from China continued to suffer, she said.
Catering hotel services could create more jobs, but large hotels are cautiously rehiring workers for day-to-day jobs as demand has not increased significantly, Ms. Marisa said.
A sign posted at the Banyan Tree Hotel in Phuket reminds guests to wear protective masks. Bloomberg
Instead of foreign arrivals, hotel business in Thailand must rely on domestic travelers, who have become even more important during the pandemic.
“Local customers may not be the primary target for room sales, but food and drink and house mice [meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions] are potential segments to help consolidate the hotel business, ”she said.
Ms. Marisa said domestic tourism stimulus campaigns should be extended in the long term to increase domestic travel and spending.
“We Travel Together,” a hotel subsidy program and tax breaks for tourism spending in 55 second-tier provinces are necessary tools during the crisis, she said.
Ms Marisa said that expatriates and digital nomads who can work from anywhere is another source market that can support the Thai hospitality industry.
She said the success of the Phuket sandbox is proof that the reopening program is safe.
Thanks to screening procedures, only 0.3% of international arrivals have tested positive for Covid-19, Ms. Marisa said.
She said the low figure should reassure residents that the reopening will not trigger another wave of the pandemic, as travelers are fully vaccinated and must undergo two RT-PCR tests – one before boarding and one on arrival.
Mr Phisut said illegal migrants created more risk, as seen in a previous outbreak at the end of last year.
The government should seriously tackle this problem and prevent the spread of new clusters, as the country can no longer afford to block, he said.