Phuket’s local government will move forward with plans to fully open its doors to vaccinated foreign visitors by October despite pushback from the national government.
In order to achieve herd immunity in time for the reopening, the resort island’s leading business owners have suggested pooling resources together to vaccinate 70 percent of its population, without waiting for the government rollout. Though the idea was shut down by the government earlier this month, Phuket’s tourism operators still believe this is an essential step to revive its economy that is at its “lowest point in history.”
“We will not stop pushing forward [with the reopening]. It’s the only way for Phuket to be able to survive,” Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association, told Thai Enquirer by phone.
“I think there must be a solution that balances controlling the outbreak and stimulating the economy.”
In the initiative aptly named “Phuket First October,” the local government proposed vaccinating a majority of its population that is above 18 in time for the high season. This will enable thousands of vaccinated Europeans travellers, who enjoy escaping their winters to bask in Phuket’s sunny beaches, to enter the kingdom.
The island is also looking to waive the 14-day quarantine, a factor that dissuades many foreign travellers from visiting Thailand. For months, the government had maintained that the quarantine is mandatory for all visitors. However, just last Tuesday Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha changed his stance, declaring that a waiver is now being considered.
“In the past, we had to accept that quarantining was necessary but right now, there are vaccines,” said Bhummikitti.
It is not enough just for foreign tourists to be vaccinated since, according to medical professionals, they may still be carriers of the virus, he explains. Locals must be vaccinated as well.
In order to meet their October 1st goal, the plan must be approved by the government before April. Initial research shows that around 250,000 citizens must be vaccinated a month prior to the proposed reopening to achieve herd immunity. Thus, vaccinations must start by June — for it will take four months to vaccinate around 2,000 locals per day. The island is looking to conduct a more detailed survey in the coming weeks to finalize the exact number of doses needed for the initiative.
On February 19, a meeting was held between the island’s leading tourism operators at Angsana Laguna Phuket in Thalang District to discuss next steps for the “Phuket First October” program.
Representatives from three vaccine companies — Sinovac, Moderna and Sputnik V — were invited to give updates about their status and when they get permission for use by the kingdom’s Food and Drug Administration. The island is currently looking to obtain shots from the Chinese biopharmaceutical company, Sinovac, which was recently approved for emergency use. Last Wednesday the first 200,000 doses of the vaccine arrived in the kingdom.
The island has also set up a research team to determine when their target countries will complete mass vaccinations by the high season in order to establish who to market Phuket’s reopening to. The tourism operators want to be as prepared as possible so they can hit the ground running, whenever they receive an answer from the government.
“Our message has not changed since the beginning. We maintain that this plan is the only way out for Phuket,” said Bhummikitti. “If the government thinks what we proposed doesn’t work, they should help come up with a solution that is satisfactory for them.”
Pushback from the Government
Phuket’s private sector first submitted a letter proposing their vaccination plans to the Ministry of Interior, via the island’s governor, on February 5.
On February 8, however, the Department of Local Administration issued an order rejecting the proposal, saying that local administrations and private organisations were prohibited from handling any Covid-19 vaccines themselves. The order, concluded by the Ombudsman, explained that the priority lies in establishing an effective vaccine management system that is most beneficial to those considered at high risk while ensuring the highest safety measures, since the number of COVID-19 shots imported is still limited.
“In the first stage, only the central government can purchase, manage and distribute the vaccines, in order to distribute to the targeted group of people and be able to follow up on their symptoms after being injected,” stated the order.
A couple of days later, the island’s business leaders submitted another letter to the prime minister to petition this decision. They cited lack of income, mounting debts and increasing financial disputes due to over eight months without international or domestic flights.
They argued that vaccinating those considered high risk is still the duty of the Ministry of Public Health. The additional vaccines administered by island’s will be complimentary to that and will only increase coverage. They also affirmed that they will only purchase vaccines already approved by Thai regulators.
Nonetheless, despite the tourism operator’s determination, the “Phuket First October” program will not be able to move forward without approval from the central government.
A devastated tourism industry
Without international tourists arriving in Phuket since last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Phuket’s tourism-based economy has been wrecked.
While 14 million tourists visited the island in 2019, that number dropped to 3.8 million in 2020, according to the Phuket Tourist Association. Now with the second wave of the outbreak, the number of tourists sank even lower — decreasing by about 93 percent from last year. This has had devastating impacts on the population, many of whom work in the hospitality sector.
“There are estimates that 90 percent of revenue and income generated for families and individuals here are directly related to international tourists arrivals,” said Anthony Lark, the President of the Phuket Hotels Association.
While the hotel industry saw an average occupancy rate of about 60 percent in 2019, that number has currently dwindled down to only about 8 percent. According to Lark, most hotels need occupancy rates of around 25-30 percent in order to breakeven.
The effects are not limited to the hotel industry. With most local businesses like restaurants, boat operators and food vendors unable to operate, entire careers and lives have been turned upside down
“We estimate that 80,000-100,000 staff have lost their job on the island,” said Lark. “This affects everybody and all of their local families.”
According to research conducted by the Prince of Songkla University, Phuket Campus, the per capita income of Phuket residents is expected to drop to THB1,984 per month between February and September this year, if the economy continues in this direction. This means a majority of its citizens will be living below the Thai poverty line of THB3,044 per month.
“There’s never been a bigger crisis in the 33 years I’ve been here,” said Lark who has lived through the financial crisis and the Tsunami as well as the Sars and Bird flu outbreak in Phuket. “There has been nothing to compare to this. All of those things are a two and this is a nine.”
As one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, Phuket’s tourism industry also has a huge contribution to the national economy. The island’s tourism operators believe that reviving the island’s travel industry will indirectly increase tourism in other provinces as well.
“Private enterprise and the government has to work together to solve this problem. We have to come together like never before,” stated Lark.