Having the big-hitters Ministry of Tourism and Sports and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) both on board – along with details announced of how the island is to be vaccinated in time, not just another general plan – all go a long way to inspiring some confidence that change is in the air.
We’ve all heard the talk before, yet this time it feels different; almost as if the powers that be in Bangkok are sensing that time is running out.
Finally, at least a date has been set. Business owners can start drawing up some plans to reopen. Even the deeply cynical, if pure self-interest is truly set aside, must be struggling to argue against it. Speculation, that master of the stock market, has helped, as if it were selling hope.
Even in terms of domestic tourism a bright light is on the horizon. The move by AirAsia to start flying 11 flights a day between Bangkok and Phuket from April 1 is good news to take to heart. Airlines have been heavily battered by the COVID outbreaks and are not in any financial position to resume services that will not send them deeper into crisis.
AirAsia Thailand Chief Executive Officer Santisuk Klongchaiya has explained that the move is to serve “pent up demand”, and the level of interest shown by visitors at a travel expo in Bangkok attended by a consortium of travel operators from the Phuket Tourist Association earlier this month held testament to that.
As for international tourists, of course there are still many issues to resolve. First and foremost is the issue of choice. So far no government spokesperson has uttered any words mandating vaccinations. Vaccines are just being offered. If you want to be vaccinated, go right ahead. If you don’t, then don’t.
What the government must do if it wants to encourage more people to be vaccinated is provide a wider variety of vaccines to choose from. That factor will play a major part in the decision by people who are not still deliberating whether to be vaccinated, but put off by the two vaccines made available so far.
A bigger hurdle is that an online poll by The Phuket News last month saw 43% of respondents say they did not want to be vaccinated at all. While the poll was just the one simple question of whether or not they wanted to be vaccinated, it is easy to presume that large portion of those who voted no did so because they had little to no confidence that vaccines were safe. Only time, and more clear information about the effect of vaccines will resolve that issue.
However, one understanding that must be dealt with is any notion that mass vaccinations will solve all our COVID problems. They will not. COVID will still exist, and still be carried, even by people who have been vaccinated.
That is why the government deserves some praise for its multiprong approach to reopening tourism. Quarantine is the one true way to prevent any possible spread, but it must be reduced to a realistic duration. The 14-day period was introduced in the heyday of fear, when it likely had no real effect on any prospects of reopening tourism. That day has long passed. Even the seven-day period to be proposed this coming week is more than prudent.
What is heartening is Tourism Minister Phiphat pointing out the proposed three-day initial isolation to observe any symptoms while arrivals are still in quarantine. The continued use of quarantine appears to be tacit recognition by the government that the PCR tests might not be as reliable in determining whether or not a person is actually infected or not. An initial observation period coupled with tests that are likely to be accurate is a prudent precaution, and three days is a reasonable period to determine whether a person is starting to develop an illness.
One more major factor that needs to be dealt with is a seeming understanding by the public that what our understanding of the COVID situation is today will remain so in the future. When it comes to COVID – and the policies being issued – anything can change, and probably will. But one week is a long time in a COVID world.
That is why the move to set a date to reopen tourism deserves praise. Allowing tourists to return will not magically solve all our problems overnight, that volume of tourism is a long way off, but it will start the wheels turning. We will have more problems between now and Oct 1, and we will see people testing positive for the virus in Phuket, whether still in quarantine or not. That is the reality, our ‘New Normal’. It has always been what we do about it that counts.