Business operators have high hopes that international tourist arrivals will continue to strengthen this year while acknowledging it may take more than a year for the industry to fully recover, reports the Bangkok Post.
For all its devastating impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred the so-called “Phuket Sandbox”, a reopening model for international travellers, and made business operators, large and small, weather the crisis, learn about what it takes to adapt and rebuild their confidence.
“We’re back, although we don’t really know how things would pan out. Some people say COVID-19 will return. After surviving the pandemic, you don’t get anxious easily.
“We went through a very hard time, so I think we can endure a little more and follow the sufficiency economy philosophy of King Rama IX. We intend to boost tourism further, making it shine and sparkle,” said Panin Kitiparaporn, chief executive officer of Siam Niramit Phuket.
While holidaymakers are drawn to Phuket by its natural beauty, tourism here is not just about beaches. Visitors also spend a lot on cultural performances and entertainment shows.
Due to virus curbs, the cast and crew of stage performances did not set foot on stage for about two years. For Siam Niramit Phuket, the theatre remained closed until late October, more than a year after its twin theatre, Siam Niramit Bangkok, ceased operations.
Toughest of times
One of the toughest decisions was to permanently close Siam Niramit Bangkok in September 2021 after 16 years of operations. Launched in October 2005, it earned a reputation for showcasing traditional Thai performances before it opened a twin theatre in Phuket a few years later.
The company leased a 24-rai land plot opposite the Thailand Cultural Centre to develop the B1.5 billion theatre. With seven years of the lease remaining and uncertainties abounding, it decided to shut down the Bangkok theatre completely.
“When the pandemic first hit and forced the suspension, we kept our staff. But we had to let most of them go when the situation didn’t improve, although we kept the building and equipment-maintenance staff. We believed we would be back one day,” Ms Panin told the Bangkok Post.
Siam Niramit Phuket is located on a 57-rai land plot purchased by the company as part of the B2bn investment. It is a local hotspot that pulled in the crowds until the pandemic struck.
After reopening its doors on Oct 20, attendance at the theatre is around 30%-40%, but the company has not even set any targets and will take things as they come, she said.
Siam Niramit Phuket has undergone a refurbishment and launched new shows to ensure visitors have an entertaining experience of Thai culture and history, which is no easy task, according to Ms Panin.
“It took us three years to develop the theatre, and it has become our pride. We invested in reworking our shows and spent a fortune on maintenance work,” she said.
Ms Panin also owns Dream World, an amusement park in the Rangsit area of Pathum Thani, and small theme parks in shopping malls, all of which took a hit during the lockdown.
“After my doctor friend said COVID-19 wouldn’t end quickly, I called a meeting. With 2,000 employees, it was hard to keep the businesses afloat, so I told each operation to try to manage. We followed the labour protection law strictly,” she said.
Due to a sharp drop in visitors during COVID-19 restrictions, several privately run zoos found themselves in financial trouble. A tiger zoo in Phuket’s Patong area was no exception.
Maj Gen Kotchakorn Chaiyabut, executive of Tiger Kingdom Phuket, said the tiger park was temporarily closed during the pandemic, and the company spent a fortune, including taking out loans to meet the costs of animal care and welfare while its gates remained closed.
The company is also thankful to the public who made donations and gave the tiger park a much-needed lifeline, she said. Their support and generosity showed that the park is part of the community, she noted.
More than six months since reopening, the park has recovered some ground, and with attendance at about 70%, it can be said Tiger Kingdom Phuket is getting back on its feet, according to Maj Gen Kotchakorn.
“We’re looking forward to the return of the European, American and Indian markets. When Chinese tourists arrive and international airlines are back at full capacity, the entire province will become as vibrant as ever,” she said.
Maj Gen Kotchakorn attributed the revival of the tourism market to all stakeholders and the holding of major events such as the Laguna Phuket Triathlon, which attracted tourists from every corner of the world.
Nanthasiri Ronnasiri, director of the Tourism Authority Office in Phuket, said the TAT has been working with the local community to stimulate economic activity in the province, and Phuket has made a strong rebound.
She said the revival of tourism in Phuket, the southern region’s top destination, is also expected to boost tourism in secondary provinces.
Amid uncertainties and challenges, a B6.6bn nighttime theme park recently burst onto the local scene with the aim of being a tourist must-see and revitalising the sector.
Carnival Magic, which offers Thai-style carnivals, parades and temple fairs, opened its doors on Sept 20 last year, just in time to welcome tourists during the high season. Located on a plot spanning 100 rai, its concept is based upon the success of Phuket FantaSea, which has been around for 22 years.
Kittikorn Kewkacha, president and chief executive of Carnival Magic Co, said Phuket FantaSea was closed for almost two years during COVID-19 as border closures kept arrivals from major markets away.
COVID-19 is one of the worst crises that tourism operators on the island have weathered, but they must have hope in Phuket’s future, he said. Mr Kittikorn has confidence that the tourism sector will fully recover in two years and believes that rebooting tourism now will not be as hard as two decades ago when only 2 million tourists visited Phuket a year before arrivals grew to 15 million.
Of the lessons learned from the pandemic, one is that businesses must act fast in the face of drastic change, and they must jettison some practices that work in a normal situation, according to Mr Kittikorn.
When Phuket FantaSea resumed operations in late February last year, the time was ripe for the launch of Carnival Magic which began construction several years ago on the plot adjacent to Phuket FantaSea.
“Carnival Magic is one of the biggest investments in the country, and with no new products introduced in the region, it will become the ‘star’, offering visitors unique experiences, world-class services and creativity,” he said.
The launch of the nighttime theme park should also bring in more international tourists and help revitalise the island’s tourism market, he said.
He is aiming to welcome as many as two million tourists this year; the ratio of international and domestic markets is 70:30, with India, China, Europe, Australia and the Middle East making up most of the foreign visitors.