Gen Natthapol wasn’t wrong in pointing out that Phuket needs to figure out where such tourists are going to go and what they are going to do once they get here, while keeping those activities COVID- compliant and minimising the risk of the local people contracting any new infections.
Some resort franchises pride themselves on the “resort only” experience, but most tourists want to venture out and actually experience the destination they are visiting, like all the events our key tourism figures are currently promoting. Tourists will not want to remain confined to their “quarantine resort”.
Allowing this movement while keeping such tourists “contained” may seem to be self-contradictory, but Phuket already has much experience with this ‘travel bubble’ concept – ironically through the cheap package tours offered to Chinese tourists even before COVID-19 broke out. These tourists all arrived on the same plane, boarded the same bus at the airport, stayed at the same hotel and were taken to the same so-called ‘tourist attractions’ and on the same tours on their group itinerary. Aptly, critics called these ‘zero-baht tours’.
In short, travel bubbles is nothing new here, and this might be what Vichit Prakobgosol, President of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA), might have been alluding to earlier this week when he said that Phuket showed the strongest potential to receive the first group of international tourists.
What also must be remembered is that while this form of tourism seems too restrictive for Western tourists to enjoy, for many people in Asia it is nearly the norm. Considering the spike in the number of infections now being reported in many such “higher-end” tourism source market countries, that might be a handy coincidence. It also makes Phuket Tourist Association President Bhummikitti Ruktaengam’s initial proposal months ago to first target South Korea and Japan for travel bubbles more likely.
However, at this stage no key Phuket figures are publicly recognising that even if the doors are opened for international tourists to arrive, how many can still afford to come due to the global economic impact of the anti-virus policies implemented around the world remains in grave doubt.
On that point, as even Patong magnate Preechawut ‘Prab’ Keesin recognised this week, prices must fall. While officials have focussed much of the attention on hotel rates and seafood prices, they have obliqued the fares charged by Phuket taxi and tuk-tuk “public transport” cartels. Our officials might want to start looking into that, as even Thai tourists are not going to come to Phuket if the most expensive part of their holiday is getting around.
Gen Natthapol, who also serves as the chairman of the ad hoc committee to consider easing the enforcement of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, under Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), can also feel free to take that particular issue back to Bangkok.
Meanwhile, even if the travel bubble test group does begin in the coming week, the 14-day trial run will not be completed until the beginning of September, but one thing is for sure: the sooner they start, the better – it will be one more step in the right direction. At this stage Phuket tourism figures just want the option on the table.