Thai tiger park hopes to roar back to life as foreign tourists return

Tigers gathering in their confinement cage in the Tiger Kingdom zoo, in Phuket, on June 28, 2021.
Tigers gathering in their confinement cage in the Tiger Kingdom zoo, in Phuket, on June 28, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

PHUKET, THAILAND (REUTERS) - A Thai tiger park in Phuket is gearing up to welcome back overseas visitors this week, as businesses on the resort island hope to benefit from a pilot programme to allow fully vaccinated tourists in the South-east Asian country.

Under the plan, foreign tourists vaccinated against Covid-19 can bypass quarantine requirements and move freely around the island. After 14 days, barring any coronavirus issues, they can travel elsewhere in Thailand.

The general manager of Tiger Kingdom said the park had taken precautions ahead of Thursday's (June 30) reopening to ensure foreign visitors are comfortable.

"We have vaccinated more than 90 per cent of our staff and also trained them about the 'new normal' tourism," Chadarat Taodaeng said.

The park, which offers close encounters with big cats is home to more than 50 tigers and a cheetah. Since the pandemic, visitor numbers have slumped from nearly 1,000 a day to fewer than 20.

Thailand lost about US$50 billion (S$67 billion) in tourism revenue in 2020 as foreign arrivals plunged 83 per cent to 6.7 million, from a record 39.9 million in 2019. Phuket was hit particularly hard by job losses and business closings.

"I'm happy that finally there will be people visiting the tigers, and Phuket city will be bustling again," said the park's assistant manager Phonphawit Ton-od, adding that the reopening would "help with both tigers' and the staff's mental health". There has been an increase in popularity of such parks, despite criticism by conservationists and concerns over safety after some instances of maulings.

For Thailand's government, bringing back visitors has been a priority, even as authorities have tried to contain a stubborn wave of coronavirus infections in recent months.

The government hopes Phuket's pilot programme will draw 129,000 visitors to the country in the third quarter of 2021, a number still far below the average 3.3 million monthly arrivals in 2019.

"I'm happy about the park reopening because our cheetah Gregor loves being around tourists and staff," said keeper Abdulrahim A-waekechi.