Tourism to major tourist destinations was clearly gaining momentum despite the continued spread of the coronavirus, especially after the country reopened on 1 November. But suddenly there was an unexpected twist – the emergence and active spread of the omicron variant of coronavirus.
An outbreak of infections with this highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus in many countries dealt another blow to Thailand’s tourism. The government has been forced to suspend the Thailand Pass programme, which allows potential visitors to register for planned visits to the kingdom under the “Test&Go” scheme, as well as the tourism promotion programme in “sandboxes”, except for one operating in Phuket.
Despite the problem, most tourism business representatives told the Bangkok Post that they are still hopeful that the tourism situation in 2022 will be no worse than last year, given the fact that the new variant of the virus seems less virulent despite its rapid spread. Vaccination coverage against Covid-19 is currently high, as is Thailand’s level of experience with the pandemic over the past couple of years.
“If Phuket is still allowed to remain open [to foreign tourists], other regions should be allowed to do the same,” said Mole Rochanasathian, president of Hua Hin Recharge, a tourism resumption project in Prachuapkhirikhan province.
The new outbreak of the Omicron variant coronavirus will not be as serious as it was in past waves of Covid-19, and Hua Hin is capable of handling the new spread of the virus, Mole believes.
Three British tourists who recently arrived in Hua Hin from Phuket were found to have the omicron variant because the disease control measures in place are effective, Mole said, adding that Hua Hin requires foreign tourists to undergo a PCR test for Covid-19 twice.
Hua Hin’s average hospital bed occupancy rate is only 30 per cent, which means it is prepared to cope with an increase in Covid-19 patients should a new outbreak occur, Mole Rochanasathian assured.
However, the government’s December 22 decision to suspend the Test&Go programme has had a bad effect on many tourists intending to visit Hua Hin. Foreigners had booked hotels for January and many were planning to stay for longer periods. People who can work from anywhere in the world prefer to spend time in Hua Hin, he said.
“These people are high-quality tourists. They usually travel by private jet and spend at least 10 days in Thailand,” said Mole Rochanasathian.
Hua Hin, as well as neighbouring Cha-am in Phetchaburi province, are tourist destinations with high potential to attract more high-quality long-stay and high-paying tourists, especially from Scandinavian countries, no doubt Mole Rochanasathian.
Meanwhile, the Chonburi province’s Pattaya resort will continue to focus more on attracting Thai tourists while it adapts to the global tourism situation.
“We don’t expect much from foreign tourists because we know there are still many restrictions in Thailand,” said Rattanachai Suttidechachai, vice president of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association.
Rattanachai said only about 4,000 foreigners have visited Pattaya since November 1, and only 20 per cent of them were “real” tourists, while the rest were foreigners who own businesses or have family here.
“We are more worried about the likelihood that the Omicron option will lead to another blockage and our Thai tourists will be banned from travelling again. This will seriously affect tourism in Pattaya,” Rattanachai said.
Since Thailand opened in November, Chonburi has organised 12 tourism promotion events about once a week, boosting the city’s tourism-based economy.
“In my opinion, 2022 will be the year when the Covid-19 pandemic actually ends, although the virus will not disappear from this world,” Rattanachai said.
Chonburi province is implementing the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) project, which will attract international investors with workshops, trade and investment events and business exhibitions, Rattanachai is confident.
The resort island of Phuket has a slightly different tourism situation, given the fact that it is still allowed to receive foreign tourists under the sandbox programme. The province was the first to pilot a partial resumption of tourism last year.
Despite the suspension of the Thailand Pass tourist registration system, Phuket still expects to receive more than 100,000 tourists who have already registered to enter Thailand through the Phuket sandbox programme, said Phuket Chamber of Commerce chairman Thanusak Phuongdet.
Thanusak said about 60,000 foreign tourists had entered Phuket through the sandbox programme from July to October, with another 40,000 or so arriving in November. “We have to thank the government for its confidence in Phuket in this matter,” Thanusak said.
About 80,000 foreigners visited Phuket in December when about 300,000 visitors were registered, including domestic tourists and foreigners entering Thailand via Bangkok and travelling to the province, Phuket Tourism Business Association president Bhummikitti Raktaengam said.
Should the Omicron variant spread quickly and lead to a worse-than-expected global Covid-19 situation, the warning sign would be a slowdown in bookings, he said. “Tourists are still coming to Phuket, there are no signs of significant cancellation of bookings yet,” Bhummikitti said.
The cancellation of the Test&Go scheme also had no impact on Chiang Mai, albeit for a different reason. Most of the tourists visiting the place previously were Thai, said Rathaphone Naradison, deputy provincial governor. More than 95 per cent of the tourists who visited the province recently were locals, travelling mainly by air, said Chiang Mai Tourism Industry Council president Phanlaphon Se-chiu.
An average of 14,000 air passengers a day make more than 150 flights to and from Chiang Mai. If the situation continues at this rate for two months, the tourism sector will begin to recover and local business operators will be able to stay afloat, Phanlaphon said.
Over the New Year holidays alone, tourism will bring about 3 billion baht in revenue to the province. Although the country’s opening has boosted tourism in Chiang Mai, the factor has helped increase the number of foreign tourists by less than 5 per cent, said La-yat Bangsitthong, president of the Northern Hotel Association.
Most of the tourists who visited Chiang Mai in November and December were Thais. The number of foreign tourists is expected to start increasing in the first and second quarters of this year. Thanks to government campaigns to promote tourism and offset some of the costs, hotels are expecting a 50%-60% increase in guests.
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