Thailand: Phuket opens for business in push to save tourism industry

  • Thailand is pushing ahead with plans to jumpstart its crucial tourism industry by reopening the popular resort island of Phuket to vaccinated travelers, even as the more virulent delta strain of coronavirus sweeps through the region.
  • Starting 1 Jul 21, inoculated tourists from low- and medium-risk countries such as the U.S. and Spain will be allowed to holiday in Phuket without quarantining. If successful, the experiment could lead to a wider reopening of the Thai tourism industry as soon as Oct 21.
  • The stakes couldn’t be higher. Before the pandemic, tourism contributed about 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product — about double the global average. On Phuket, tourism accounts for more than 90% of the economy and employment. But with beaches empty and many restaurants, bars and massage parlors shuttered, average income is expected to drop below the poverty line in 2021.
  • Even as the island reopens, expectations are low. Only 100,000 foreign tourists are forecast to arrive in 3Q21, compared to more than 2.5 million a quarter pre-pandemic.
  • “Phuket is on a national mission to pave the way for the country to reopen. The whole country is closely watching. We can’t fail,” Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha said during a visit to the island on 1 Jul 21. “There are risks to public health, but at the same time the economy and businesses still need to move forward.”
  • To facilitate Phuket’s reopening, the government has fast-tracked its vaccination rollout. About 70% of the island’s population, and all hospitality workers, have been inoculated, compared to a national rate of just 7%.
  • That has some health experts worried the nation isn’t ready to reopen. Thailand recorded 30,608 new infections in the week ending 30 Jun 21, with a record 57 deaths reported 1 Jul 21.
  • “It takes two to tango, but at least one side of the dance has started, and that’s better than nothing,” said Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd., which has five properties on the island. “The number of countries that now accept people who have been vaccinated to enter without quarantine is growing by the day. The timing for this is perfect to gear up for the peak season in 4Q21.”

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