The worsening COVID-19 situation in Thailand has led the Tourism and Sports Ministry to reconsider the country’s reopening strategy, admitting some target destinations are still marred by soaring infections.
However, the ministry insists on reopening Bangkok by this year as the capital is the heart of the tourism industry in Thailand.
“With more than 9,000 cases per day, we cannot think of reopening the whole country or even 10 designated destinations as expected. We should adjust the strategy depending on the situation in each area and stay focused on provinces that have already reopened like the Phuket sandbox and Samui Plus schemes,” said Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn, the tourism and sports minister.
Four destinations – Bangkok, Chon Buri, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Phetchaburi – are still reporting a high number of new cases daily, so the ministry will propose a plan to help tourists in the Phuket sandbox visit safe areas nearby such as Koh Phi Phi and Railay Bay in Krabi and Khao Lak in Phangnga, he said.
Under this plan, tourists will see their compulsory stay in Phuket reduced from 14 days to seven if they opt for sealed route tours to destinations as part of a programme called “island-hopping”.
This proposal still requires the approval of the prime minister.
Mr Ratchakitprakarn said the ministry and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) will not restrict reopening to certain provinces but will extend it to other provinces that have been left behind.
He said some provinces in the Northeast with low infection rates such as Bueng Kan, Nong Khai and Ubon Ratchathani have the opportunity to join the programme as they have unique landscapes, cultures and characteristics to attract the Western market.
Chiang Mai and Lamphun in the North can be promoted as golf destinations, said Mr Ratchakitprakarn.
“Reopening should occur in areas that can control the virus and have 70% of the population vaccinated. This scheme should also win public consensus to welcome inoculated international tourists,” he said.
The Phuket sandbox scheme has been open for two weeks, but Mr Ratchakitprakarn said it is still premature to discuss reducing the compulsory 14-day stay on the island as the whole country is grappling with record-high infections and fatalities.
“I have to visit the Tokyo Olympic Games in Japan this month and will return via the Phuket sandbox, completing 14 days on the island. This rule won’t change for the time being,” he said.
However, the government plans to keep its goal to reopen Bangkok by this year if 70% of its 10 million inhabitants are vaccinated, said Mr Ratchakitprakarn.
“We must reopen Bangkok because it represents the whole nation. The capital is the heart and centre of tourism. If the city can reopen, there’s no need to worry about other places,” he said.
Thanet Supornsahasrungsi, acting president of the Chon Buri Tourism Council, said despite 513 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the province is committed to its reopening plan for vaccinated international tourists starting in September, dubbed the “Pattaya Move On” programme.
The province just cleared some hurdles as the TAT officially endorsed the provincial reopening plan, allowing the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration to allocate enough vaccines for its population of 450,000 in two districts: Bang Lamung and Sattahip.
However, he said tourism operators acknowledged they must closely monitor the situation in the coming months. If cases rise in the area, Chon Buri might have to postpone the plan.
“Even if we cannot reopen as planned, we still need to achieve herd immunity to ensure confidence as a destination for travellers,” Mr Supornsahasrungsi said.
He said more than 40% of small and medium-sized businesses in the hospitality sector in Pattaya have permanently closed since the first lockdown last year. Only 20-30% of the remaining businesses are open.
“The initial return of guests might be business travellers from industrial zones in the eastern provinces. However, we hope to achieve 30% of 2019 tourism numbers by the end of this year,” said Mr Supornsahasrungsi.