BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG, THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand's plan to reopen the tourist haven of Phuket could become a model for other vacation hotspots in Asia to prise open their borders for visitors, according to the founder of Banyan Tree Holdings, despite local medical experts warning of the spread of Covid-19 variants on the island.
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 5 per cent nationwide, after a concerted push to get locals 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."
The sandbox plan has not been welcomed by all in Thailand, however. Dr Prasit Watanapa, dean of Mahidol University's Faculty of Medicine, said on Tuesday that the reopening of Phuket under the tourist sandbox scheme could make the province vulnerable to the spread of mutated Covid-19 variants.
"Personally I think it is too soon to open the country to foreign tourists as the vaccines that have been provided to locals cannot protect against every kind of virus variant," he warned.
"Furthermore, the province's disease control measures are not strict or comprehensive enough to contain the virus should a new wave emerge."
According to the Public Health Ministry, about 400,000 Phuket locals or 60 per cent of the island population have been vaccinated against Covid-19 so far.
"Take the UK for example. They opened the country and now their infection rate has climbed with new variants being discovered in the country," he said.
"The 14-day mandatory stay in Phuket might not be long enough as we do not know what the new variants are capable of. Some countries, such as China, have even increased the quarantine period to 21 days. However, extending this period could result in [more] tourists changing their minds or not visiting Phuket at all, which defeats the purpose of the campaign," Dr Prasit said.
Asia has been slow to reopen due to sluggish vaccine roll-outs. Many countries also still only allow residents to enter and enforce strict lockdowns in a bid to keep Covid 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 US, for example, has ruled them out due to privacy concerns.
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.
Thailand was hit with 40 Covid-related deaths and 2,331 new cases on Wednesday, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 204,595.
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-o-cha has said it could be replicated in other tourist hotspots 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 Thaneth Tantipiriyakij, 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.
Foreign visitor numbers to Thailand dried up last year and a special visa programme initiated ahead of the peak season over the Northern Hemisphere winter did little to boost numbers. In the year before the pandemic, the country welcomed more than 3 million international visitors a month on average and the tourism industry contributed about a fifth of gross domestic product.
With only a few hundred visitors expected in July, Phuket's success should be based on a "gradual" increase in arrivals rather than numbers just after the island reopens, according to Ho. A steady rise would demonstrate confidence ahead of the high season in November and December, he said.
"Once Phuket has worked out its protocols and Bangkok and Chiang Mai have tested this, you have a real hope that Thailand as a whole will be ahead of Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines in attracting back tourism," Ho said.