PHUKET’S hotels and tourism businesses are being urged to step up their game as Thailand prepares to open the island to quarantine-free entry for vaccinated travellers from July 1.
Thai Airways and the Tourism Authority of Thailand have been working together to sell direct flights across key markets in Europe to Phuket with the island operating as a “sandbox model” to test how overseas holidaymakers can return to other destinations in the kingdom.
The plans are not without challenges as Thailand tackles a Covid surge in certain parts of the country, while restrictions have been eased elsewhere. The UK – a key market – has placed the kingdom on an amber list requiring a 10-day quarantine on return.
Island destinations such as Phuket and Samui, however, are seen as being better able to control the flow of visitors and conduct health screening due to their limited entry points.
Thai Airways is offering direct flights to Phuket from Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London and Paris while it is also planning routes from Seoul and Taipei from July with the addition of Tokyo being considered for a later date, the Bangkok Post reports.
Tourism chiefs expect a low demand from Europe at first but are planning familiarisation trips to Phuket for hundreds of travel agents to arrive in phases.
Phuket’s tourism industry leaders have welcomed the prospect of a re-opening helping businesses on the Andaman Sea island recover after 15 months of lockdown due to the global pandemic.
“The plan is still on and July 1 is the date we will receive international travellers who have been vaccinated and who can stay in Phuket without quarantine,” said Phuket Tourist Association president Bhummikitti Ruktaengam.
“We are on track with vaccinations in Phuket where we need to achieve a herd immunity of 70 per cent of the population, which includes expats with work permits,” Ruktaengam said.
He advised the travel industry to prepare infrastructure, re-train staff and implement the new safety and health administration (SHA Plus) guidelines on health and safety as hopes build for the return of the European market, notably from the UK, France, Germany and Scandinavia.
“Europe is a big market… there is strong demand for Q3 and Q4 already,” Ruktaengam said.
Royal Vacation, a Thailand-based DMC, has also issued a guide to the Phuket Sandbox Model detailing tips for overseas travellers planning quarantine-free vacations on the island.
David Johnson, CEO of Delivering Asia Communications, which is working with some of the island’s tourism stakeholders to prepare re-opening campaigns focused on Europe, said: “What is clear is that Phuket hotels need to get ready, and get ready quickly.
“It has been a tough 15 months, but the light is at the end of the tunnel and visitors from Europe will return first,” Johnson said.
“What will be key is to not go back to offering the same thing. Hotels need to create new story narratives based on nature, culture and the destination itself using new distribution channels. The world has changed and it is important to respond to that. There’s new bucket lists to fulfil for travellers who have been locked down for so long dreaming of returning.”
Consultant Bill Barnett, of C9 Hotelworks, said the drop in temperatures across northern Europe later in the year would spur demand for quarantine-free travel to Phuket. He noted that 35-40 per cent of the island’s overseas visitors are from cold-weather regions in Europe.
“As soon as the temperatures drop, the vaccinated snowbirds will inevitably lead the charge back to the sandbox beaches, and that’s a healthy base to start the recovery storyline,” Barnett said.
Phuket had been a favourite island retreat for corporate leadership groups prior to the pandemic and major properties there have upgraded their hygiene and social distancing measures in anticipation of MICE travel resuming after the return of vaccinated travellers who have also tested negative for Covid.