Officials in Chiang Mai have been working hard and learning from Phuket’s “Tourism Sandbox” model so the northern province can also reopen to fully vaccinated tourists.
Phuket is preparing to open its doors to vaccinated visitors on 1st July and tourism-dependent Chiang Mai wants to follow suit a month later.
The Sandbox model requires foreign tourists to remain on the island for 14 days, increased from 7 days before they can move on to other destinations.
Both provinces have suffered greatly since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
A wide range of businesses – airlines, hotels, tour guides and restaurants, and bars are struggling to stay afloat in the absence of tourism revenue and the government hopes the Sandbox programme will be a shot in the arm for the ailing sector.
Narong Tananuwat, deputy chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s economic development committee in the North, said Chiang Mai could ill afford to allow its fortunes to slide further.
The province is an enormous drawcard for foreign tourists and how it performs has a significant bearing on the national economy.
In 2019, Chiang Mai raked in 100 billion baht in tourism revenue but that was slashed by the pandemic to 43 billion baht last year, when passengers at Chiang Mai airport tumbled from 11.3 million to 6.2 million.
The pandemic forced the closure of more than 60% of Chiang Mai’s tourism-related businesses.
The situation is particularly dire for those which rely heavily on foreign tourists; of the 80,000 hotel rooms available in the province, only 3% are still being made available.
Mr Tananuwat said the third wave of the pandemic, which has been by far the most devastating so far, has spurred the province to devise stimulus plans to salvage its tourism industry.
However, he said that for the plans to work a high number of local people must first be vaccinated and he lamented the slow rollout of the vaccine programme to date.
Mr Tananuwat said stakeholders in Chiang Mai agreed the province should push for its own version of the Sandbox model to be launched on 1st August in four districts – Mae Rim, Mae Taeng, Doi Tao and Muang – ahead of the entire province being reopened to fully vaccinated tourists on 15th October.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand will submit Chiang Mai’s reopening proposal for the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration’s (CCSA) approval.
The province’s Sandbox programme would limit foreign tourists’ sightseeing itineraries to “sealed routes”, which would only take them to pre-approved local attractions. They would not be permitted to travel independently.
Local officials say they would only allow their reopening to go ahead if at least 70% of residents in the four districts, about 286,000 people, have been vaccinated by the end of July. Chiang Mai’s total population is 1.7 million.
Mr Tananuwat claims Chiang Mai’s tourism industry has already done its bit and that more than 800 local businesses earmarked to cater to Sandbox tourists have passed the safety and health administration (SHA) standard.
Once the programme starts, it is expected to boost air passenger arrivals to Chiang Mai to 10,000 a day, up considerably from 1,500 per day at present.
It is also predicted to lift the number of tourists to the province to 600,000 in the last five months of this year. Income for tourism establishments and commercial outlets will likely also be on the rise as jobs are gradually restored.
“But we need the vaccine to be administered to people in a timely fashion,” he warned. “If it is, the plan should proceed without a hitch.”
“COVID-19 will be with us for at least a decade. We need to create a safe environment for making a living and for that to happen, we need to build herd immunity.”
Navapol Kanthawanich, chairman of the We Love Chiang Mai Fund, said mass vaccinations began yesterday in Chiang Mai’s chosen four districts but for the 1st August Sandbox reopening to proceed as planned, the inoculation schedule needed to be accelerated in the four districts.
The foreign tourists must have been fully vaccinated at least 14 days prior to their arrival and the vaccine they received must be recognised by their countries of origin.
They must also be covered by health insurance and must download the tracing app, CM-Chana.
Those on direct international flights would be subject to COVID-19 tests on arrival and must stay at SHA-certified hotels.
Tourists would be required to spend the first seven days inside the four districts and if they then test negative for COVID-19, they will be permitted to travel to other areas, provided they are in the “sealed route”.
As of 2nd June, 70,844 people had been vaccinated in Chiang Mai, or 5.3% of the population. Of them, 21,937 received two full doses.