Phuket model may help reopening Asian tourism as travel bubbles burst

 Thursday, June 17, 2021 


According to the founder of Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd, Thailand’s plan to reopen the tourist haven of Phuket could become a model for other vacation hot spots in Asia to open their borders and bring in visitors as strategies such as travel bubbles falter.

Tourism-reliant Thailand aims to allow quarantine-free travel to its prime destination from July 1 for the first time in more than a year, provided visitors are inoculated against COVID-19 and aren’t coming from high-risk countries.
The so-called Phuket Sandbox plan is dependent on the vaccination rate among the island’s residents hitting at least 70 per cent. It currently stands at about 60 per cent, far higher than the five per cent nationwide, after a concerted push to get local residents vaccinated.

“Every government is beginning to feel around on how to open up, and the Phuket Sandbox is really a viable way now because even the travel bubbles that people talked about didn’t take place,” Banyan Tree Executive Chairman Ho Kwon Ping said in an interview Monday. “It’s the first time anywhere east of the Maldives that you have a country with this population size with such a low vaccination rate actually opening up to the rest of the world.”

Asia has been slow to reopen due to sluggish vaccine rollouts. Many countries also still only allow residents to enter and enforce strict lockdowns in a bid to keep COVID-19 cases at or close to zero. Hong Kong and Singapore have been trying to open a quarantine-free travel corridor for months, but outbreaks have so far scuppered plans.

Meanwhile, European countries such as France and Spain are loosening restrictions faster and allowing vaccinated visitors from places as far away as New Zealand to enter without quarantine. Even if Phuket Sandbox goes ahead, travellers may have to quarantine when they return to their home countries.

Still, Ho welcomes the plan, saying islands are the best place to start as they are more isolated. “You can control it,” he said. “If you have an infection rate going up, you clamp down, you protect the rest of the country.”

Ho also said it was encouraging to see Thailand taking the initiative rather than waiting for international agreements on vaccine passports showing whether travellers have been inoculated. The U.S., for example, has ruled them out due to privacy concerns.

The so-called Phuket Sandbox plan is dependent on the vaccination rate among the island’s residents hitting at least 70%.

Vaccination remains key. With its higher rate of inoculations, Phuket reported only six new cases over the past week, with some days of no local infections at all. For Thailand as a whole, new virus cases are averaging 2,790 a day, about a third of which are in the capital Bangkok. Under the reopening plan, vaccinated tourists can stay in Phuket for any period of time and travel to other parts of Thailand after 14 days on the island.

“The Sandbox is much more than just for Phuket or Thailand. It sets a possible way forward for other Asian countries,” said Ho, who founded a leisure and property empire of 48 hotels and resorts in more than a dozen countries. In addition to the Indonesian island of Bali, he said the plan could be followed by China’s Hainan province and Phu Quoc in southern Vietnam, which are also islands.

Final details of the plan are expected to be approved by Thailand’s COVID-19 task force on Friday, with Cabinet approval likely next week. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has said it could be replicated in other tourist hot spots in Thailand, such as Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, if it succeeds.

“We’re still waiting for the final framework, which has to be friendly to visitors and safe for local residents,” said ThanethTantipiriyakij, president of the Tourism Council of Phuket. “It has to be the right balance for this to work.”
Details still to be announced include a list of approved vaccines and countries eligible for quarantine-free travel, Thaneth said.

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