The Thai government has prioritised the rebooting of foreign tourism in Phuket by beginning a mass vaccination drive in the southern province this month, but a steep rise in Covid cases over the past weeks, seeded in entertainment venues, reached a record 1,547 positive tests in a day on Saturday (17 April).

The strong vaccination drive will place Phuket ahead of the rest of the country in a bid to quickly inoculate at least 70% of its 500,000 population and achieve herd immunity. The government’s ambition is to resume quarantine-free travel for visitors from select international cities and countries who have been vaccinated, providing a much-needed boost to a tourism-reliant economy that has been battered during the pandemic.

According to Bill Barnett, Managing Director of consulting group C9 Hotelworks based in Phuket,“From the first week of April, they were inoculating anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 people a day, so they were able to get nearly 80,000 to 100,000 people, hotel workers mainly, vaccinated, which was a good thing, so we were well on the way to the goal of getting herd immunity and the July opening. We’re all waiting to see after Songkran what the government is going to do to stem the tide and the spread right now. The Prime Minister has made some comments recently, alluding there could be some delays, so that’s a bit of a concern.”

Thailand’s tourism-driven economy contracted by 6% in 2020 as the number of international visitors plummeted from 39.9 million in 2019 to 6.7m last year. 

Anthony Lark, President of Phuket Hotels Association, which represents 80 hotels employing 20,000 staff, described the new outbreak as a “road bump” but said discussions were continuing about the establishment of Thailand’s biggest island as a bubble: “There is a glimmer of hope and a shining light at the end of our very dark, long tunnel, but the fear factor here is quite high. There’s a lot of people in Thailand who don’t want foreigners coming in here carrying the virus. The secret is to get the local community vaccinated to a level where we feel safe enough with the presence of antibodies in people’s systems to welcome back tourists without that fear.”

Lark says it will take a long time before tourism returns to pre-pandemic levels, but at least there should be enough business to sustain the employment of those who need it most: “50% of the staff who work in the hotels in Phuket don’t come from Phuket,” he said. “They come from Krabi, or Trang, or other provinces around Thailand in the north/northeast. They relied on their salaries and service charges to support their mums and dads back home.”

In the meantime, domestic tourism is keeping some businesses afloat. “Domestic tourism has literally been the oxygen that has enabled almost all of the tourism-related businesses on Phuket to continue to breathe and survive, but it’s unsustainable,” said Lark. “Phuket’s tourism can’t survive at 6-8% occupancy. These hotels were designed to run at 30-40% occupancy to break even. So it’s helped stem the tide of outgoing grief, but it’s by no means sustainable, sadly.”

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