PHUKET, Thailand (BLOOMBERG) - A Thai resort island popular for its beaches is drawing up plans to fully reopen to vaccinated visitors by October to revive its wrecked tourism industry.
More than a dozen business groups, including the Phuket Chamber of Commerce and the Phuket Tourist Association (PTA), are planning to pool funds to vaccinate 70 per cent of the island's population above 18 without waiting for a government roll-out. They are betting that it will be safe to open the region to foreign tourists once the local population achieves herd immunity.
The plan, which will need government approval, also seeks to waive a mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement, a major hurdle for many potential travellers. This will allow thousands of vaccinated Europeans who usually spend their winter months in Phuket to visit, according to PTA president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam.
The plan is the latest attempt to revive Thailand's tourism-reliant economy. An earlier initiative to reopen Phuket to international visitors faced several delays before being realised last October, but response has been lukewarm as few travellers wanted to submit to quarantine. A second wave of Covid-19 infections has also come as a further setback, prompting a fresh round of economic stimulus to support businesses and individuals.
"We can't wait any longer. If we have to wait, we won't survive," said Mr Bhummikitti, whose association represents about 300 members, including luxury resort and five-star hotel operators. "If we miss this winter peak season, we would have to wait another year."
Under the plan, called "Phuket First October", the tourism industry will import vaccines through private firms and may acquire shots from Sinovac Biotech, the Chinese maker whose vaccine is expected to be approved by the Thai regulator this month.
The government vaccine roll-out is expected to achieve herd immunity only by 2022, according to Health Ministry officials.
With the Thai tourism industry racking up losses and hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk, Mr William Heinecke, chairman of Minor International, which runs more than 500 hotels across 55 countries, last week urged Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to prioritise tourism workers along with front-line and healthcare employees for inoculation. The move could facilitate quarantine-free travel for people with "vaccination passports", Mr Heinecke said in a letter to the Prime Minister.
Phuket could be a pilot site for Thailand and once it is successful, the model can be rolled out to other destinations, Mr Heinecke said, citing the example of Seychelles, which last month announced quarantine waivers for vaccinated visitors.
"Phuket has always been a huge contributor to the Thai economy," Mr Bhummikitti said. "Today, we are standing up to take control of the situation. We don't have a lot of money now, but we are giving one last push, hoping that this will save us."