SINGAPORE: In June, Thailand announced plans to reopen Phuket to tourists vaccinated against COVID-19 and coming from low and medium risk countries.
If all goes according to plan, tourists who meet these conditions can travel to Phuket without having to go through quarantine.
They can walk around the island instead of being confined to their hotels.
THE GOOD NEWS
The good news couldn’t come sooner. After almost 18 months of being banned from traveling and being effectively locked up at home, this desire to travel seems strong.
People can’t wait to leave. For many, the fun includes traveling with friends and family, dining out, sightseeing, shopping, playing sports, relaxing on the beach and soaking up the sun.
Phuket is an ideal destination for these activities. It was a very popular place with tourists from Europe, Australia and many Asian countries before COVID-19 hit.
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Thailand is sufficiently motivated to make this test a success and develop the required processes and policies accordingly. It has already lost $ 50 billion in tourism revenue last year.
If travel were again almost as smooth as it was before COVID-19, one might expect an avalanche of tourists hitting Phuket. In fact, the demand could be overwhelming and the available capacity could fill up quickly.
Since many other once popular destinations are not open to welcome tourists again, with many travel bubbles bursting, Phuket’s tourism industry would benefit from the early opening.
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WILL PHUKET BE GOOD?
There are a lot of “ifs” and “but” s. Phuket’s “sandbox” assumes that the local population achieves herd immunity, with around 70 percent of the population vaccinated by the time time travel will be allowed. New cases of infection have fortuitously remained at single digits since May.
Fully vaccinated tourists who have tested negative prior to arrival will be surrounded by hotel staff who have been similarly vaccinated. Coming from somewhat similar risk profiles to Thailand, they are unlikely to pose additional risk.
While the risks are not zero, research has shown that fully inoculated individuals are better protected against infection and are therefore less likely to spread the virus. They will also need to stay in Phuket for 14 days before traveling to other parts of Thailand.
Phuket has yet to work out practical details and policies, however.
For example, will Thailand really accept vaccination certificates regardless of vaccination marks? Earlier in April, it had approved just eight manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines for overseas visitors seeking a shortened quarantine – Sinovac, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, BioNTech SE, Johnson and Johnson, Moderna and Sinopharm.
Although a negative PCR test is required before arrival, how often should tourists be tested in Phuket? Ideally, the trip to Phuket should not add additional costs to the traveler, such as those for testing.
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BUT TANGO TAKES TWO
The low number of hotel bookings at 20 percent occupancy, despite interest from Europe, the UK and the Middle East, suggests the road may be curvy.
To be successful, the travel sandbox will need to be as smooth, easy, and convenient as possible. But even though traveling to Phuket is easy, tourists may be less willing to travel if they are exposed to the hassles of quarantine, COVID-19 testing, and other inconveniences upon their return.
Singaporeans are unlikely to be drawn to the Phuket sandbox, as Singapore has been strict with anyone returning to Singapore. Few, if any, would be willing to spend three weeks in quarantine after returning from a week or two of a beach vacation.
This despite increasing its Singapore Airlines flights from two to seven from July.
As such, Thailand will need to work with key food markets such as Australia and a number of European countries to develop travel corridors where ideally both sides do not require quarantine for travelers. .
At a minimum, returning residents should be allowed to re-enter the country without having to endure enormous hassle, but we all know how fragile travel bubbles can be.
Finally, travelers would be aware of the risks associated with changing travel restrictions and regulations. For example, will Australia let its residents return home if there is an increase in COVID-19 cases in Phuket?
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ARE TRAVEL SANDBOXES THE WAY TO GO FOR OTHER DESTINATIONS?
The world longs to return to normalcy again. Travel is a big part of this pre-COVID story.
It was a mega trend before COVID-19 that has grown year on year faster than gross domestic product in most countries around the world. It has become a major contributor to employment and economic activity in many countries.
If the Phuket sandbox proves effective, other tourist destinations could follow suit. Islands seem to be predestined to open up because movement can be better controlled. Ko Samui and Krabi are slated for a similar opening. Indonesian islands like Bali could follow.
The local tourism industry and its employees will push for this. Tourism is undoubtedly one of the most affected sectors that needs to get back on its feet. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has announced a bold plan to reopen Thailand to visitors within 120 days, calling it a calculated but necessary risk.
Of course, a mass vaccination program for the local population would be a prerequisite.
Perhaps the prospect of jobs and income will inspire local politicians and industry players to get vaccinated and convince their residents to get vaccinated.
For my part, I hope Singapore joins the travel corridors to these relatively safe vacation destinations and I look forward to being able to travel again – to Phuket or elsewhere.
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Professor Jochen Wirtz is Associate Dean of MBA Programs and Professor of Marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School. He is the co-author of the book Intelligent Automation – Welcome to the World of Hyperautomation.