One of Phuket's famous long-tail boats moored up on the once bustling holiday island.
Hoteliers on the holiday island of Phuket have welcomed plans for Phuket to reopen in October following an island-wide vaccination programme.
The ‘Phuket First October’ plan initiated by Phuket Tourism Association aims to enable the popular tourist destination to safely welcome international guests for its winter season.
“Hearing the announcement of the ‘Phuket First October’ plan from the Phuket Tourism Association is a much needed and welcomed one and something I have been lobbying for since the Thailand national lockdown was lifted,” said Frederic Varnier, cluster managing director for Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas and Anantara Layan Phuket Resort.
The holiday island’s tourism industry has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Attempts to attract tourists back to Thailand this year have been met with a lukewarm response with visitors unwilling to book a trip while the country's mandatory two-week quarantine remains in place.
Rather than wait for a government vaccination rollout, local business groups and the Phuket Chamber of Commerce are now hoping to fund the inoculation of 70% of island residents over the age of 18.
It is hoped that this will achieve herd immunity amongst the local population, making it safe to reopen to overseas visitors.
However, government approval is needed and also to remove the mandatory 14-day quarantine, allowing for the island to cash-in on its once-lucrative winter season by welcoming vaccinated Europeans to spend the colder months in Phuket. The government vaccination programme is not expected to achieve herd immunity until 2022.
“We can’t wait any longer,” said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the tourist association. “If we have to wait, we won’t survive. If we miss this winter peak season, we’d have to wait another year.”
“Phuket is an island and so the majority of international tourists that visit us do not leave, with their overall stay being between ten and 14 days,” said Varnier. “As such, if international tourists were allowed back into Phuket, we would become a safe quarantine tourism destination but with the complete freedom to move around in a paradise environment.”
However, he recognised the importance of keeping the population of Phuket safe from Covid. “The only way to do that is to create herd immunity within the province through the suggested vaccination programme. Once this happens, foreign tourists vaccinated abroad should not have to undergo the current mandatory 14-day state quarantine as collectively, we will all have immunity; it makes logical and medical sense.”
Under the Phuket First October plan, the tourism industry will import vaccines through private firms, possibly from Chinese manufacturer Sinovac Biotech, whose vaccine is expected to receive approval from the Thai regulator later this month. Phuket could become a pilot site with the aim of rolling out the model to other tourist destinations. The Maldives has reopened successfully to international visitors and the Seychelles announced last month that it would be waiving quarantine for vaccinated visitors.
The tourism industry has also appealed to the government to prioritise tourism workers along with frontline and healthcare workers for vaccination.
“Phuket has always been a huge contributor to the Thai economy,” Bhummikitti said. “Today, we’re standing to take control of the situation. We don’t have a lot of money now but we’re giving one last push, hoping that this will save us.”
“It’s encouraging to see the private sector taking the lead on this vital initiative,” said Varnier. “We all want to welcome international tourists back to Phuket soon, as from a business perspective, we cannot wait much longer.”