Thai Hospitality Tycoon, Academics Lobby For Safe Reopening Of Phuket & Thai Tourism Sector

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One of Thailand’s most prolific businessmen, American-born Bill Heinecke who is the founder of MINOR Group which owns hotel brands such as Anantara has become more vocal in getting Thailand back on track to open for tourism by Fall of 2021.

In a recent round table discussion with Phuket officials, the Phuket Tourist Association and local academics Mr. Heinecke emphasized that it’s vital to get a working road map on the way in order to reopen at least Phuket to international tourists by October 1st.

We’re now nearing the 12 month mark where Thailand has essentially been shut to international tourists and while tourists are now allowed to return the required hurdles such as pre-scheduled arrival certificates, Covid tests and especially a costly two week quarantine proves to be a killer for any serious effort to restart the tourism industry.

The amount of foreign arrivals that enter the country as tourists is a drop in the bucket with only 6,556 people having arrived in Thailand during the month of December 2020, a reduction of 99.83% compared to the previous year 2019.

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Needless to say these numbers mean absolutely nothing in terms of economic input. The individuals arriving at the moment willing to jump through all these hurdles must have very specific reasons to come back to Thailand under the tourist visa entry. Some for personal relations, others to flee a deteriorating Covid situation back home and then just the regular snowbirds for whom a two week hotel quarantine doesn’t make much of a difference.

The round table discussion in Phuket which Mr. Heinecke attended was seeking to get the ball rolling into the direction of re-opening the Island to international arrivals without quarantine. by fall at the latest.

Phuket is the perfect testbed for allowing vaccinated tourists who undergo rapid testing on arrival to enter the country on holidays, Bill Heinecke, founder and chairman of the Minor Group, told a seminar held at Laguna Phuket yesterday (Feb 19).

Allowing the return of vaccinated tourists who undergo rapid testing is the only way to safely reopen the country to tourism, Mr Heinecke said, noting that quarantine was “killing” any prospects of restarting tourism and helping to reboot the economy.

Mr Heinecke said he was “very honoured” to be at the ’Phuket Roundtable’ event, chaired by Phuket Tourist Association President Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, and joined by a host of leading representatives from Phuket’s tourism and other industries, as part of the united push to reopen Phuket to international tourists by Oct 1, under the campaign #PhuketfirstOctober.

“I think it is very important right now that you, through seminars like this, try to re-open up tourism safely,” Mr Heinecke noted.

“I think we are all aware now of the success of some of the initial vaccines and it’s quite encouraging. I hope we can build confidence to open to people when they are vaccinated and when they arrive and be tested negatively – so that means they cant be asymptomatic or carrying the virus when they land.

“If we can do that we can dispense with quarantine,” he said.

“Quarantine is the thing that is killing tourism. There is no way we can possibly reopen while we have quarantine,” Mr Heinecke said plainly.

“Even today the government is trying to highlight the fact that everyone is trying to make quarantine easy. Quarantine is not easy. It is difficult,” he added.

By example, Mr Heincke pointed out that Thailand was “the only country in the world with no drinking in the room while in ALQ or ASQ quarantine”.

“That is understandable if you are in a hospital or state quarantine, but not if your paying for five-star or six-star accommodation,” he added.

Mr Heincke also highlighted the slowness the Thai government has proceeded in securing vaccines for the country, and the lack of a clear outline – and timeline – for vaccinating the population.

“It behooves the government to encourage the private sector to move forward and allow the private sector to source vaccines that have been approved. We should allow people to import vaccines that have been approved without interference from the government,” he said.

“We hope that we can do this – through meetings like this – and get Phuket thriving again. Phuket is the perfect example because Phuket is an island. It would be relatively simple to enforce, and when everyone is being tracked as is already happening.

Mr Heinecke then gave some examples about Maldives in comparison, building a bridge to how it could work for Phuket.

The criticism of not allowing alcohol during the quarantine period in high class resorts is valid. I mentioned multiple times before that Thailand has an obsession with alcohol and “the evil” it brings, restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages at every given opportunity. For example for almost two months now (since January 2) the sale of alcohol in Bangkok’s bars and restaurants is prohibited while other parts of the country including Phuket pour as usual.

Of course many of these points he mentioned here are true. The decisions and initiatives by the government have been a disaster for the Thai economy. The only positive aspect is that Thailand has been spared the worst of the pandemic but that might have been more due to luck and rigorous border closure than skilled disaster management.

The problem with getting these things though to senior political leadership in Thailand is that the power center lies in Bangkok with the Prime Minister and pretty much all the other elite of the country.

These people pretty much never listen to foreigners although Mr. Heinecke is a naturalized Thai citizen. He is however one of the wealthiest and most prolific businessmen in the country so they can’t totally ignore a public opinion like that.

The real issue is that the plan of “vaccinating Phuket” and then letting foreigners in isn’t going to work. The Maldives are a country consistent of a few islands, they can create a national policy that fits all. Phuket is part of Thailand and there is no such thing as a “Phuket Health Policy” that would isolate the island from the mainland both in terms of preferential vaccine treatment and socially.

This plan of making Phuket accessible to foreigners would essentially mean sealing it off and not allowing Thai citizens from the mainland and other islands to visit the Phuket, cutting them off from friends and family. That’s legally impossible and would cause a huge outrage in the country that’s currently already a powder keg due to political instability.

Economic considerations all nice and well but I don’t see any political appetite from the senior leadership to provoke such a situation. Opening the borders isn’t very popular with the Thai population either if you trust polls that are regularly published in daily newspapers. People from abroad are generally seen as a virus threat. The most recent Covid spike was linked to infected illegal migrants from Myanmar who cross the jungle borders on almost a daily basis, resulting in thousands of cases after an 8 month streak without any diagnosed local cases.

The current focus of the Thai government is to introduce vaccines into the broader population, first by importing a small number of products manufactured abroad and then producing a vaccine domestically in license. The timeline for this will be, well not anywhere close. It will take a very long time and opening Phuket or Thailand as a whole without quarantine before October is a far stretch.

At the same time, even if Thailand would admit foreigners – who could actually come? Most countries have introduced their own travel bans on both outgoing and incoming travel. Australia, China, UK, New Zealand, Taiwan and the list goes on. Even if you’re allowed to leave there is hell to pay when you return in terms of long and costly isolation. A two week beach trip to Thailand is out of the question.

Image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarruken/3856100203

And since Thailand loves to hinge their hopes on Chinese tourists to stimulate their economy: China has one of the most rigid health regimes when it comes to foreign travel at the moment. Zero chance any short term tourists will be coming from China anytime soon.

Right now there’s very little ground for optimism that foreign visitors who have been vaccinated with whatever product will receive any preferential entry or treatment which means quarantine for all until further notice. Likely until the population has general access to a vaccine and achieved somewhat of a herd immunity.

Conclusion

Stakeholders in the Thai tourism industry are urging the government to finally introduce models that would let them open key tourist centers such as Phuket to the outside world. While these desires are reasonable both in their own financial interest but also founded in the well being of those who are employed in the tourism industry, there is almost no practical way of accomplishing this. Both legally and without alienating the local population.

The Phuket round table also had input from local academics who presented different models including a possible road map and impact predictions. Their approach is two fold, for one predicting the best way to reopen the tourism industry but also to prevent an even larger disaster which would be a further plunge into poverty for residents of destitute tourism reliant areas. At this moment it’s anyone’s guess how this scenario will play out as there is no blue print how to proceed. Any approach will be a gamble.

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