The Thai island of Phuket is usually a mecca for sun seekers during the long European winter (photo courtesy Unsplash).
Phuket is drawing up plans to fully reopen to international tourists this autumn with a self-funded vaccination programme.
The holiday island’s tourism industry has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic and Phuket is now taking recovery plans into its own hands. Attempts to attract tourists back to Thailand last year under a nationwide Special Tourist Visa scheme have been met with a lukewarm response, with visitors unwilling to book a trip while the mandatory two-week quarantine remains in place. Other 'sweeteners' have included allowing quarantiners to play golf during their 14-day isolation, but again take-up has been muted.
Phuket is now aiming to open quarantine-free to vaccinated visitors by October under the new plan, ‘Phuket First October’.
Rather than wait for a government vaccination rollout, local business groups and the Phuket Chamber of Commerce are hoping to fund the inoculation of 70% of island residents over the age of 18.
It's hoped that this will achieve herd immunity amongst the local population, making it safe to reopen to overseas visitors.
However, government approval is needed to remove quarantine regulations, allowing for the island to cash-in on its once-lucrative winter season by welcoming vaccinated European holiday makers to spend the colder months on the island. The government's national 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.”
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 Seychelles announced last month that it would be waiving quarantine for vaccinated visitors.
Thailand's 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.”