TThe island of Phuket in Thailand used to vibrate with life. Before the pandemic, March was part of the peak season and the resort’s long white beaches were packed with tourists from Europe, Australia, North America and China. At night, backpackers flocked to beachfront bars and on the hills that stretched inland, wealthy tourists ate at five-star restaurants.
Today, Phuket is a ghost town. The shockwaves of Covid-19 have reduced the number of daily visitors from as much as 50,000 to just hundreds. But there is hope that plans to bring tourists back could turn the fortunes of the coastal city and the country.
“If visitors come, we will all make more money,” says Tow Jaturaput, a 30-year-old taxi driver whose main job is to take visitors to their hotels from the airport. “Tourists have a lot of money and we benefit too,” he said, adding that today, there simply isn’t enough business for the resort to prosper.
The number of rates in a day for him is at an all-time low.
“I’m not afraid of [contracting the virus] not at all from tourists. I want more people to come. I think most of us are ready. “
Earlier this month, the Thai government Announced a plan to boost tourism. The “area quarantine plan,” scheduled to begin in June, would allow vaccinated tourists to self-quarantine at specific hotels for just seven days. Those who are not immunized will be required to isolate themselves for ten days. The idea is relax the current two-week quarantine policy for international visitors hoping it can restart tourism and attract visitors while keeping the risk of spreading Covid low.
Vaccinated tourists registered with the plan would fly to selected locations deemed safe for visitors. Resorts like Koh Samui and Phuket are at the top of the list because they have their own airports.
According to the Tourism Ministry, visitors would have to be quarantined in a hotel room for the first three days, then if they continued to test negative, they would be allowed to leave their rooms at the resort.
Authorities have not announced all the details of the plan, but suggested that, in theory, vaccinated tourists would be allowed to leave their hotels and explore some areas of the city after repeatedly testing negative. They are likely still subject to checks and balances with the authorities.
A ministry spokesman said he hopes the plan “will help save our tourism partners and local communities” by allowing international arrivals “in accordance with health and safety measures and creating direct and indirect income in each province and beginning the rehabilitation of the Thai tourism “.
The move comes after the government announced a “yacht quarantine program” that would allow tourists who can prove they do not have Covid-19 to live aboard yachts or take cruises in Phuket. Koh Samui and Phuket expect to fully open up to vaccinated tourists, without quarantine, by October and the government is aiming for a full reopening of the country by January 2022.
‘Like a dead city’
The grounding of international flights in 2020 to contain Covid was a huge blow to businesses across the country. While Thailand’s strict entry requirements and quarantine protocols have helped keep Covid cases in the country at just 26,000 and 85 deaths, it has had dire consequences for the economy, which in 2020 fell by the most since the Asian financial crisis more than two decades ago. .
A small part of that was due to the drop in tourism, which accounts for a fifth of the country’s GDP, including jobs in transportation, travel agencies, restaurants and hotels. In 2019 alone it was worth $ 60 billion.
Although the borders were reopened to foreign visitors in October, quarantine restrictions have deterred most tourists from returning in large numbers.
“I think the time spent in quarantine is the main problem for many tourists,” says Thibault Spithakis, a Phuket bar and restaurant owner and founder of Chalong Bay Distillery, a spirits brand popular with tourists. “Because two weeks in quarantine is too expensive and many cannot afford to cover the costs of quarantine. So reducing the quarantine time is interesting, ”he said.
He said the pandemic had affected the tourism industry and the informal sector that depended on it.
“Today 95% of places have closed,” he said, adding that Phuket was designed to receive eight million tourists per year and was dependent on visitors.
“Now it looks like a dead city,” he said. “During the worst part, there were people queuing in the street to receive handouts from the local government,” he said. “So I think at this point it’s okay to take a little risk and try to accelerate the reopening of the economy. Security is important, but the economic situation is very difficult for us and for the people of Thailand in general. “
‘I’ll be happy if people start coming back’
The proposed scheme to boost tourism arrives like Thailand He received his first batches of the AstraZeneca vaccine last Tuesday. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was the first person to be vaccinatedas some countries briefly stopped the vaccine for safety concerns.
“Today I am increasing the confidence of the general public,” Prayuth told reporters at Government House when he received his opportunity.
The country has purchased 61 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Thai government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told The Guardian that the country hopes to open up the economy for tourists and foreign investment as long as the plan stays within the World Health Organization’s travel and safety guidelines.
But many hope that life will return to normal once the government allows more people to travel safely to Thailand. For those who work tourism-dependent jobs like Tow, the plan could be a game changer.
“I’m not sure if they [the government] will open flights or not, or if this vaccine plan will work, but I’ll be happy if more people start coming back. “
In the quiet streets of Phuket, something has to change.
“I want people to know that we are ready for more people to start coming back,” says Tow. “I hope the government starts allowing more people to return.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism