Local airlines are still reluctant to join the Phuket sandbox model as shaky travel regulations and unstable tourism demand remain an obstacle.
Since the third wave of the pandemic began to ravage domestic demand in April, the average load factor has plunged as many provinces have imposed travel restrictions on people from the red zone, led by Bangkok, the epicentre of the fresh outbreak, said Tassapon Bijleveld, executive chairman of Asia Aviation Plc (AAV), the largest shareholder of Thai AirAsia.
Therefore, airlines must be cautious before resuming the route, including international locations that connect to Phuket. However, many international airlines have announced their intent to fly direct to Phuket from July in tandem with reopening.
“We won’t rush international services in the early stages of the sandbox as tourist demand is unstable, particularly as vaccinated tourists will be forced to roam the island for 14 days,” he said. “Reopening is necessary but we have to wait for steady rules and demand.”
The government recently changed entry regulations for inoculated tourists to Phuket, expanding compulsory stays on the island from 7 days to 14 days. Visitors are also required to submit three swab tests even if they show negative results prior to arrival.
Mr Tassapon said if airlines choose to operate this route but receive few bookings, it might have to cancel the flight to avoid incurring losses which will irk tourists who have already booked and the airline itself which will lose credibility.
At present, Thai AirAsia is using just two aircraft from its fleet of 59. In the first quarter, a leased airplane was retired and the airline will not replace it in order to streamline investments.
Nuntaporn Komonsittivate, head of commercial operations at Thai Lion Air, said travel regulations are a key concern preventing airlines from flying international routes to Phuket as there is still no clarity on the entry process.
Meanwhile, demand from international passengers is still considered insignificant. Thus, the airline will wait until the fourth quarter to see if there is consistent standard operational procedures and reliable demand.
Suksit Suvunditkul, chief executive of Deevana Hotels and Resorts, said most hotels will remain closed from July to September as this is low season on the island. At present, there is only 15-20% of hotels open and the number is unlikely to change in the first three months of sandbox.
European travellers, the target group for Phuket sandbox, will favour travel in their region as many leading tourism countries are ready to welcome back tourists such as Spain.
Moreover, the extension of mandatory stays in Phuket will limit the number of inbound travellers to those who are huge fans of Phuket as tourists who want to hop off to other parts of the country will wait for the removal of the mandatory two-week stay.