Thailand’s Phuket island used to vibrate with life. Before the pandemic, March was part of peak season and the resort’s long white beaches were packed with tourists from Europe, Australia, North America and China. At night, backpackers would flock to beach-front bars and on the hills stretching inland wealthy tourists would eat at five-star restaurants.
Today, Phuket is a ghost town. The shockwaves of Covid-19 have reduced daily visitor numbers from up to 50,000 down to just hundreds. But there is hope that plans to bring tourists back could change the fortunes of the beach town, and the country.
“If visitors come, we’ll all make more money,” says Tow Jaturaput, a 30-year-old taxi driver, whose main job is shuttling visitors to their hotels from the airport. “Tourists have a lot of money, and we benefit from it too,” he said, adding that today, there’s simply not enough business for the resort to thrive.
The number of fares in a day for him is at an all time low.
“I’m not afraid of [contracting the virus] at all from the tourists. I want more people to come. I think most of us are ready.”
Earlier this month, the Thai government announced a plan to kickstart tourism. The “area quarantine scheme”, scheduled to begin in June, would allow vaccinated tourists to quarantine in specified hotels for only seven days. Those not immunised would be required to isolate for ten days. The idea is to soften the current two-week quarantine policy for international visitors in the hope that it could restart tourism and bring back visitors while keeping the risk of spreading Covid low.
Vaccinated tourists registered with the plan would fly to selected locations deemed safe for visitors. Tourist hubs like Koh Samui and Phuket are top of the list because they have their own airports.
According the tourism ministry, visitors would need to quarantine in a hotel room for the first three days, then if they continued to test negative, would be allowed out of their rooms at the resort.
Officials have not announced full details of the plan, but suggested that vaccinated tourists would theoretically be allowed to leave their hotels and explore some city areas after repeatedly testing negative. It’s likely they would still be subject to monitoring and check-ins with authorities.
A ministry spokesperson said it’s hoped the scheme will “help save our tourism partners and local communities” by allowing international arrivals “in line with the safety and health measures and create both direct and indirect income in each province and start the rehabilitation of Thai tourism”.
The move comes after the government announced a “yacht quarantine programme” that would let tourists who can prove they don’t have Covid-19 live aboard yachts or take cruises in Phuket. Koh Samui and Phuket hope to open fully to vaccinated tourists – without quarantine – by October and the government is aiming for a full reopening of the country by January 2022.
‘Like a dead town’
The grounding of international flights in 2020 to contain Covid was a major blow to businesses across the country. While Thailand’s strict entry requirements and quarantine protocols have helped keep the country’s Covid cases at just 26,000, and 85 deaths, it has had severe consequences for the economy, which in 2020 shrank by the biggest amount since the Asian financial crisis more than two decades ago.
A bit part of that was from the decline in tourism, which makes up a fifth of the country’s GDP, including in jobs in transport, travel agencies, restaurants and hotels. In 2019 alone it was worth $60bn.
Although the borders reopened to foreign visitors in October, quarantine restrictions have deterred most tourists from returning in high numbers.
“I think the time spent in quarantine is the main issue for a lot of tourists,” says Thibault Spithakis, a Phuket bar and restaurant owner and founder of Chalong Bay distillery, a spirit brand popular with tourists. “Because two weeks in quarantine is too time costly and many don’t have the luxury to cover the costs of the quarantine. So reducing the quarantine time is interesting,” he said.
He said the pandemic had hit the tourism industry and the informal sector that relied on it.
“Today, 95% of places have closed,” he said, adding that Phuket was designed to receive eight million tourists per year and was dependent on visitors.
“Now, it looks like a dead town,” he said. “During the worst part, there were people lining up in the street for handouts from the local government,’ he said. “So I think at this point it’s okay to take a little bit of risk and try to accelerate the reopening of the economy. Safety is important, but the economic situation is very difficult for us and for people in Thailand generally.”
‘I’ll be happy if people start coming back’
The proposed scheme to boost tourism comes as Thailand received its first batches of the AstraZeneca vaccine last Tuesday. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was the first person to be vaccinated, as some countries briefly paused the vaccine over safety fears.
“Today I’m boosting confidence for the general public,” Prayuth told reporters at Government House as he got his shot.
The country has bought 61m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Thailand’s government spokesperson, Anucha Burapachaisri, told the Guardian that the country is hoping to open up the economy for tourists and foreign investment as long as the plan stays within the safety and travel guidelines of the World Health Organization.
But many are hoping life might return to normal once the government allows more people to safely travel to Thailand. For those working in tourism dependent jobs like Tow, the plan could be a game changer.
“I’m not sure if they [the government] will open up flights or not, or if this vaccine plan will work, but I’ll be happy if more people start coming back.”
In Phuket’s sleepy streets, something has to change.
“I want people to know that we’re ready for more people to start coming back,” Tow says. “I hope the government starts letting more people back in.”