American writer Mark Weyant had been planning an extended getaway to Thailand’s sun-soaked tourist island of Phuket for over a year, aiming to finish writing a screenplay and complete a diving certification over a three-month period.
But then Covid-19 hit and the 53-year-old figured he would have to scrap his plans and forfeit his 150,000 baht (US$4,800) deposit on a villa rental in Tri Tang Beach, Phuket.
But a Thai government plan to grant visas for foreigners who want to stay in Thailand for up to nine months could mean he could travel to Asia as planned, rather than be forced to look elsewhere.
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Thailand’s borders have been closed to most foreigners since late March as the kingdom battled the Covid-19 pandemic but it is now finalising a scheme rumoured to start on October 1 called Safe and Sealed, which would confine tourists to a particular resort or area with a defined perimeter for a 14-day quarantine, allowing them to leave their rooms.
Those who complete three weeks on Phuket and test negative after several tests would be allowed to travel to other Thai regions, offering a potential lifeline for a tourism-reliant economy that is tipped to contract by a record 8.5 per cent this year.
“It would probably save my trip,” said Weyant, who is based in Philadelphia.
However, while the scheme may offer a ray of sunshine to an industry otherwise mired in gloom, doubts are already creeping in over its safety and effectiveness.
Critics point to other economies that have seen resurgences of the virus after reopening to tourists and returning residents, questioning whether the October start is rushed and whether there has been sufficient attention to detail. Others wonder how much of an impact the scheme can make given the limitations visitors will still face. Last week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said only a “small number” of foreign visitors would be allowed to “test our system”, while the deputy army chief said later that the number would be limited to just “hundreds” of people.
AN ECONOMIC CRUTCH
That something needs to be done is largely accepted, given tourism accounts for up to 80 per cent of Phuket’s economy on some estimates. Shuttered shopfronts and darkened restaurants now line the once-thronging beaches of Patong, Karon and Kata and many people see the return of at least some travellers as the only hope.
While the government has tried to promote domestic tourism with a campaign to foot 40 per cent of travellers’ hotel bills, local trade just does not fill the hole vacated by the hordes of foreigners from more chilly climes who once visited Phuket for a much needed dose of sunshine.
More than 6.7 million Europeans visited Thailand in 2019 and contributed 461 billion baht (US$14.8 billion) to the Thai economy, according to government data.
Ronachot Pattaraboonsop, of Lagoon Service Car Care and Rental, says foreign customers accounted for 95 per cent of his business in pre-pandemic times. “It is really hard to generate any income from (domestic tourists), as most of them travel with their own car,” he says.
“My main group of clients (used to be) the long-stay guests (from overseas) running away from cold in winter,” says Pattaraboonsop. “I hope that the Safe and Sealed model will bring this group of people back.”
Bill Barnett, managing director of C9 Hotelworks, a consultancy that provides data to the hospitality industry, says it is exactly this “legacy snowbird market” that Safe and Sealed is aimed at. He describes the plan as a baby step to restoring trust among Scandinavians, Russians, Britons and Germans who would once visit for up to six months at a time.
“As soon as it starts to snow in Europe you’re going to have people who want to travel again over the winter,” he says.
Others are more sceptical. Willem Neimeijer, the founder of Khiri Travel, says the obstacles to Safe and Sealed are “high cost and low trust, not a great combination in any marketing effort” and doubts Thailand can compete with countries such as Greece, Spain, Costa Rica and the …