The easing of the requirements for domestic travellers to come to Phuket, brought into effect only nine days ago, has also helped to ease the tension, which has been nearly palpable across the island as people and business operators continue to struggle to keep their financial heads above water. It’s almost as if the island itself this past week has breathed a nervous sigh of relief in the belief that the end might be nigh.
In addition to the easing of the alcohol restriction in Phuket and the entry requirements for domestic visitors to the island, the Sandbox 7+7 extension scheme now appears to be workable with areas outside Phuket, including Khao Lak, Koh Yao and Phi Phi Island, ready to properly receive guests without provincial orders for those locations getting in the way.
Domestic flights are now allowed to carry full loads, Phuket’s boat tour and yacht charter industry has long been more than ready to receive tourists in full compliance of the COVID rules, and talks with Russian officials include the expectation of seeing Russians returning to the island as early as next month.
In numbers, even according to immigration reports the Sandbox scheme has yet to still to fulfill anywhere near the touted promises, as of Friday totalling 43,802 arrivals since July 1, with 776 arriving on Friday (Oct 8). Further, on the ground it is difficult to see exactly where the “billions of baht” the Phuket Sandbox scheme has generated, as espoused by officials, has gone to – but it has helped. Tourists can now be seen in small numbers in key areas on the island, and in Patong even light traffic is back on the beach road and Rat-U-Thit 200 Pi Rd further back from the beach is no longer in total darkness at night.
The number of international arrivals is expected to slowly bloom in the coming weeks, and months. Britain on Monday removing Thailand from its ‘red list’ of countries requiring quarantine on return to the UK will help, as will the progress by the Australian government in allowing its nationals to travel abroad.
But while other countries are taking positive steps to see the tourism return to some form of ‘new normal’, Thailand seems to be holding onto one of its great barriers to encouraging tourists to return: the dreaded Certificate of Entry (COE).
Only those willing to take the weeks to compile the pad of paperwork required to be issued a COE have reported that it is worth the effort, mostly for expediting the arrival process at the airport, which ironically is just Thai officials checking other Thai officials’ approvals. The rest have spoken for themselves, either lambasting the paper chase with comments online, or simply by not booking their holidays at all.
When the COE was launched, it was presented as an understandable precaution. However, all the legal mechanisms are in place to enforce the same requirements without placing any of the burden on the tourist.
There is nothing in the COVID prevention requirements for any venues on the island that cannot be simply incorporated into the general health code, and the mandatory COVID insurance and can be made a visa requirement and checked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which already handles all the COE applications. The same can be done for the prepaid SHA+ bookings requirement. Anything else is a requirement on business and service operators inside the country, and for Thai officials to enforce on those already here.
The worse news this week was the announcement of a B500 ‘tourism transformation’ tax to be brought into effect early next year, which simply beggars belief. If officials want to give tourists yet another reason not to come, they just created it. Government officials can justify the tax any way they want, but to a tourist it’s just more money for nothing.
For observers inside the country, the newly approved tax appears to be nothing more than a way of legitimising the “tips” from international arrivals that immigration officers used to require from the hordes of Chinese tourists ploughing through the airport arrivals halls.
However, the true irony lies in how many billions of baht government officials say tourists generate for the country, and those same officials now saying the tax is needed to spend on making the country better for the tourists. Each and every observer now clearly has the right to ask, “Well, where did the billions of baht go?”
Countries around the world are making strides in freeing up travel. Thailand can now try to do the same.