While Phuket celebrates reopening to tourists for the first time in more than a year, with international flights bringing more than 300 vaccinated arrivals to the island on Thursday, the scene elsewhere in Thailand is a struggle with the relentless pandemic.
More than 50 deaths from Covid-19 were recorded on Wednesday and Thursday, followed by a high yesterday for new infections at 6,087. Fatalities hit a peak of 61.
Some people were told no hospital beds were available and died alone in their homes.
As most analysts agree inoculation is the only way to reduce the suffering from the pandemic, a tug-of-war has begun over the vaccine stock. There is limited vaccine supply and the government amped up the pressure by setting an ambitious goal of mid-October to reopen the country.
Every province has been instructed if it wants to reopen, it must follow Phuket’s lead. The first condition is to create herd immunity by inoculating at least 70% of the population.
The limited vaccine supply means hard choices have to be made when provinces that rely on tourism compete with the rest of the country just trying to survive the pandemic.
FAST TRACK BOGS DOWN
In addition to Phuket, nine other areas expressed their intention to reopen for tourism and were selected for a pilot phase: Krabi, Phangnga, Surat Thani, Chiang Mai, Chon Buri, Phetchaburi, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Buri Ram and Bangkok.
Other provinces must wait patiently as the reopening rules require several steps before provinces receive the requested doses.
Thanet Supornsahasrungsi, acting president of the Chon Buri Tourism Council, said the “Pattaya Move On” scheme is scheduled for September.
Businesses in the eastern province are finished with most of the provincial standard operating procedures (SOP), including guidelines for inbound tourists, he said.
Though Chon Buri’s SOP were approved by the local health administration and the Department of Disease Control, the province still requires a green light from the provincial governor and Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
Mr Thanet said tourism-related associations already discussed the vaccination plan with Gen Natthapon Nakpanich, operations director of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA).
Gen Natthapon told tourism operators the vaccine allocation should be ready for Pattaya whenever it receives approval from related authorities.
“The vaccines we’ve requested didn’t come as expected. We still need additional consensus from the TAT and provincial governor before securing those lots,” said Mr Thanet.
“Pattaya tourism operators want to keep the initial timeline, but we are feeling the pressure as residents should have received their second jab two weeks before the reopening date. This means we have until mid-August if we want to keep that deadline.”
The Pattaya plan calls for a soft opening in two districts: Bang Lamung and Sattahip.
Chon Buri requested either 450,000 doses of AstraZeneca to administer at least one jab for its population of 450,000, or 900,000 doses of Sinovac to complete two jabs for each resident.
He said the vaccination programme for the whole province is quite slow. Those first two districts of Bang Lamung and Sattahip have received only 60,000 doses.
Another 120,000 doses of vaccine are expected to be added to the province via the social security system, but these are mainly for workers in industrial estates, which does not affect the tourism industry.
“Government indecisiveness is piling the pressure on the province. When the CCSA announced a lockdown on construction camps but did not take any immediate action, many workers sneaked from Bangkok to other provinces, including Pattaya,” said Mr Thanet.
While waiting for more vaccines to arrive, he said the government should act to identify construction workers who are infected to keep risks in check.
“Pattaya already learned from some mistakes made by the Phuket scheme and we hope we will not face the same difficult situations,” said Mr Thanet.
“The problem we observed from Phuket concerns inconsistent regulations. Why couldn’t the authorities formalise the rules and a direction from the beginning?”
He said the late publication of the Phuket sandbox in the Royal Gazette, which codifies the plan into law, caused 50% of guests who booked for the first day of the sandbox to postpone their trip.
The official approval came later than expected because of disputes about guaranteed payment for Covid-19 tests, which cost about 8,000 baht for a 14-day stay.
“This kind of issue needed to be addressed from the beginning, but they brought it up at the last minute,” said Mr Thanet.
He said Thai tourism operators want the Phuket sandbox to succeed so other destinations can follow.
However, the scheme’s success largely depends on factors that are uncontrollable for operators, such as the vaccination programme, said Mr Thanet.
Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao in Surat Thani province are slated for reopening on July 15, but they still have low vaccination rates.
As of July 2, Koh Samui has 42% of its residents having received two doses of vaccine, while 59.3% received at least one dose. Koh Phangan and Koh Tao posted lower rates of 6.1% and 11.8%, respectively.
Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, president of the Phuket Tourism Council, said reopening via a sandbox scheme is not a universal remedy for all stakeholders in the tourism supply chain.
He said the majority of the benefits will likely go to large operators, such as five-star hotels that have enough budget to gamble on the risk of reopening.
Instead of focusing solely on foreign tourists, Phuket still must rely on the domestic market as this segment can generate more income for mid-sized and small operators.
“We encouraged a TAT plan to stimulate 548,000 local trips to the island,” said Mr Thaneth. “Not all of us can penetrate the foreign market during this difficult time. Local spending can help strengthen the liquidity of small operators and prepare them to welcome inbound guests once more arrive in the fourth quarter.”
TAT estimated domestic travellers will inject 5.5 billion baht into the Phuket economy during the third quarter.
Phuket implements stringent screening measures for local travellers, allowing only vaccinated tourists to visit the island.
Woranate Laprabang, chief executive of Thai Vietjet, said only international airlines and Thai Airways can service the Phuket sandbox in the early months.
Low-cost carriers cannot earn any revenue from the initial stage of the sandbox because their jets are mostly narrow-body aircraft, which are unable to fly long-haul flights.
“Low-cost airlines usually focused on regional services before the pandemic, but most Asian countries have kept their borders closed. We must wait until more countries achieve herd immunity to reactivate international routes,” said Mr Woranate.
However, he said there will be more opportunities for local carriers if the government can initiate city bubbles between Phuket and other cities in the region such as Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. This island may want to welcome inoculated tourists using a similar model to Phuket, said Mr Woranate.
The entire tourism sector is cheering for Phuket to contain the virus and maintain Thailand’s momentum with the international market over the long run, he said.
“If reopening attempts fail, more airlines will disappear. Last year many Thai airlines had to bid farewell or went into bankruptcy without any financial aid from the government. A successful reopening provides hope for us,” said Mr Woranate.
He encouraged the government to take a more aggressive approach to mass vaccination because it is the most important condition to safely restart both domestic and international tourism activities.
“We’re concerned about the surge in daily cases. Our load factor dropped from 78% to 72% this week. People who still travel do it for necessity, not for leisure. Vaccination is the key to help our industry recover faster,” said Mr Woranate.
In addition to a vaccine shortage, a growing concern over vaccine efficacy is fuelling doubt over virus containment.
The Tourism Council of Thailand conducted a survey in the second quarter and found half the local population want to receive alternative vaccines from what is available now. Pfizer was the top choice at 36%, while Sinovac came last at 7%.
Chotechuang Soorangura, managing director of NS Travel and Tours, said his company ordered an alternative vaccine, Sinopharm, procured by Chulabhorn Royal Academy, for 450 employees who had not been vaccinated.
“Most of them signed up for the Bangkok Metropolitan vaccination programme, but their queues are in August, which is a bit late for tourism operators like us. We need to prepare for the upcoming high season, particularly after the country reopens. The firm had to find alternative vaccines to fill the gap,” said Mr Chotechuang.
He said with the prime minister announcing the whole country must achieve herd immunity by the end of the year, daily vaccine administration should reach 500,000 doses per day. The current figure is a far cry from that goal, said Mr Chotechuang.
“We had one worker who received two doses of Sinovac and was diagnosed with Covid-19. The government should procure more effective and reliable vaccines, and distribute them to those in need as soon as possible. Not that many of us can afford to survive by using our own budget for health and safety,” he said.