Covid-19 surge in Asia: Rising cases put Phuket’s reopening under scrutiny

People receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in Phuket, Thailand, on April 1, 2021.
People receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in Phuket, Thailand, on April 1, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The beaches and bars on Phuket, once teeming with tourists, have been quiet since the Covid-19 pandemic decimated the travel and tourism industry on the popular holiday island, but Thailand is now looking to rapidly inoculate island residents so tourists can return.

The government will vaccinate most of the island's 400,000 population, including foreigners who are residents, as part of sandbox plans to reopen Phuket to vaccinated foreign travellers on July 1, and to other tourist hot spots, including Koh Samui, in October.

"If we can build immunity for 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the population on the island, we can receive foreign tourists who have been vaccinated without the need for quarantine," Phuket Vice-Governor Piyapong Choowong told Reuters.

Tourism, critical to Phuket's economy, had generated more than 480 billion baht (S$20.4 billion) in 2019. Foreign visitors were responsible for about 90 per cent of the money spent on the island.

Pre-pandemic, Phuket welcomed about 15 million tourists annually. In 2019, almost 40 million overseas visitors travelled to Thailand.

But once the coronavirus landed last year, and with the kingdom closing its borders and barring entry to non-resident foreigners from March last year, visitor arrivals dropped dramatically.

Phuket saw only about 25,000 visitors from March to October last year, the Bangkok Post reported.

This wreaked havoc on the Thai economy, with its gross domestic product (GDP) contracting 6.1 per cent in 2020, the most this century.

Last month, almost a year to the date when borders were shut, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha ordered officials to study vaccine certificates for international travel, after signalling that the kingdom is open to scrapping the two-week quarantine for inoculated visitors.

Earlier this month, the 14-day quarantine period was reduced to seven for vaccinated international arrivals permitted to enter.

Non-resident foreigners arriving in Phuket will be restricted to travel activities within designated areas on the island for seven days before they are allowed to visit other Thai destinations.

British national Martin Miller, who owns a restaurant on Kata beach in Phuket, welcomed the news, but with some scepticism.

"The main tourist areas in Patong are dead," the 52-year-old told The Straits Times over the phone. His restaurant is about 10km from the famous tourist stretch.

"We're a bit sceptical honestly... If the July date is pushed back, it could mean the difference between survival of the business or not," added the owner of eatery The Pig and the Whistle.

Phuket's comeback plans could be derailed by a third wave of infections that has hit Bangkok and Chiang Mai in recent weeks.

While Thailand has fewer cumulative cases than its South-east Asian neighbours, the number of new daily infections has swelled.

On Wednesday (April 14), the nation recorded 1,335 fresh cases, its biggest daily rise since the start of the pandemic and the third record rise this week.

Most of the new cases are linked to nightlife clusters in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The outbreak has led to the closure of clubs, pubs and bars in Bangkok and 40 provinces.

Thailand currently has more than 35,000 cases and 97 deaths.

International tourism consultant Christopher Khoo, who is based in Singapore, said it "makes sense" to reopen tourism, "but the virus doesn't respect plans".

However, with vaccines being rolled out worldwide, Thailand is in a better position to open to international tourists with proper virus control measures, said Mr Khoo, the managing director of MasterConsult services.

"How and when to open up with the right measures? Nobody has the right answer," he added.

Thailand's third wave is coming amid the annual Songkran celebrations. The festival, which started on Tuesday (April 13), is known for big gatherings and street water fights, events the authorities have banned for a second year.