Will we see Phuket tourism boost the Thailand reopening

Is Thailand open for tourism, and if not, is Thailand reopening and when will Thailand reopen to tourists? These questions demand clarity before tourists will commit to places like Phuket for their holidays. Business owners need clarity for the revival of Phuket tourism.

phuket tourism
Bangla Road – Patong. Once the liveliest road in Phuket 24/7 – Deserted

Bangkok Post – 26 March 2021

According to an article published on 26th March 2021 by the Bangkok Post, the Thailand reopening, or to be precise, the Phuket reopening will be by July.

The article was headed ‘Phuket ‘to reopen by July’.

Here is the opening paragraph.

The government is expected to give the green light today to allow tourists who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 to visit the island of Phuket without having to undergo the mandated quarantine period, starting in July.

On the face of it that was excellent news because Thailand’s economy relied heavily on tourism pre-COVID19, and Phuket’s economy was based almost entirely on tourism. So, making Phuket the model for the rest of Thailand seems a good idea and appears to be the government’s objective.

The article goes on to say,

Local entrepreneurs and communities have agreed the island province could reopen to foreign tourists, Mr Supattanapong, who is also the energy minister, said… entrepreneurs and communities are confident Phuket’s tourism infrastructure is still able to accommodate “quality visitors.”

What they meant by “quality visitors” was not explained.

When will Phuket tourism be revived – where is the Plan?

If the Phuket reopening was planned for July 2021, I imagined the plan would be complete and available to the travel industry and local business people. But the Bangkok Post did not mention it.

At the time of writing this article there was only 3 months to reopen and prepare for the tourists’ arrival in July. The weather in Phuket is usually at its worst in September, with heavy rainfall and dangerous seas. It gets steadily worse from July, and tourism is historically at its lowest between July and October.

I was surprised that Phuket was planning to reopen by July. So, when will Thailand reopen to tourists?

phuket tourism
Patong Beach Road Central – Sad corner building rotting in deserted soi

Bangkok Post – 4 April 2021

The Bangkok Post followed up on 4 April 2021 with an article headed Tourists from 28 countries drawn to Phuket relaunch

…the province is expected to welcome 150,000 foreign visitors from July to September with an estimated income of 30 billion baht.

“Those who are likely to visit are businessmen or people who have families in Thailand. We have a survey indicating that foreign tourists are turned away by quarantine,”

…the reduction of the mandatory isolation period from 14 days to seven days which took effect on April 1, is unlikely to revive the general tourism industry.

Why reopen a Phuket tourism business in the low season?

The above abstracts make interesting reading and raise the question of businesses reopening. Apart from unpredictable weather (July – October), until Phuket removes the quarantine period it seems tourists will not come. Therefore, why would anyone reopen a business when they know there is always few customers at that time of year. In fact many businesses closed every year for a couple of months between July and October.

Karon Main Road – Derelict Sports Stadium with empty shops

Phuket a year after covid19 struck – A Dystopian nightmare

Despite the questions the announcements raised, I was pleased to hear the good news. So I called two of my English friends to see if they wanted to go for a drive with me to check out the 3 main tourist destinations on Koh Phuket.

Before I realised it was April Fool’s Day, we were on our motorbikes and over the hills to Kata, Karon and Patong to see what was happening.

The short answer to the question, is Thailand open for tourism? Was, definitely not yet – as nothing is happening.

The main roads were quiet and the road through Kata was traffic free. Close to 100% of shops and businesses were boarded up or shuttered and the pavements were devoid of pedestrians.

 It was a very depressing dystopian nightmare.

Phuket Tourism had taken a beating

Phuket tourism had taken a fearful beating since the evacuation of tourists started in March 2020 and was more or less complete by August.

Chalong, the main harbour and ferry terminal to the Andaman islands was closed down as were most of the businesses, in a once busy area, heaving with tourists day and night. The picture was the same all the way from Chalong to Patong. The odd shop, maybe a 7 eleven was open here and there, and a local restaurant or two at most. There was hardly any traffic on the main road once we reached Kata, and the streets were deserted in all three resorts. We saw no more than five or six people on foot. It felt as though an earthquake was on its way and all the cats had disappeared. Thailand is full of street dogs, yet I don’t recall seeing one.

On the positive side, wildlife and nature lovers, hill walkers and beach goers had it all to themselves. As long as they could accept there was nowhere to pop into for a snack and a cool drink, they would be happy.

Kata Main Road – Kata Palm Resort 5 Star Abandoned

Where was everyone?

Sea-front properties always take a battering from the weather and the salty air. But it is always worse when properties are unoccupied for any length of time. The degradation of boarded and shuttered commercial property on Patong’s Beach Road was alarming.

Even a number of five-star hotels appeared to have been abandoned between Chalong and Patong. There was very little sign of life, so where was everyone?

The Tourists left last year – Did locals leave too?

I knew the tourists left in 2020 but what about the local inhabitants, the landlords with no tenants and the business-people waiting to re-open their shops and restaurants and bars. Where were the beach vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, shop assistants, massage girls, waiters, barmen and chefs. The streets used to be packed with temporary stalls, selling everything imaginable. Where had the street-vendors gone? There was nothing, no markets down the busy sois, no market traders. Where had they gone? And where were the local families with their children? Were the schools still open?

Surely, there had to be some people somewhere.

How would the hotels survive?

When we arrived in Patong, the last of the three resorts, we called into The Amari Hotel, one of the nicest five-star hotels, where I stayed in 2018.  They were open for business, but there was not one guest to be seen in the massive reception area, pools or restaurants.

There were only two cars in the car park, and the receptionist told us they were at 15% occupancy that day. A pessimist may have said, we are 85% empty, which sounds far worse, but it amounts to the same thing.

I didn’t want to embarrass her by asking if the bars, restaurants, coffee shop, poolside bar and all the other luxurious facilities were available to the handful of guests squirrelled away in the few rooms that were occupied.

Neither did I ask where the guests came from, because I had a pretty good idea.

Twenty kilometres South, The Naiharn on the rocks is a five-star hotel whose occupancy was higher than the Amari by quite a bit. The Naiharn’s guests were all Thais who came from up country. They were able to stay for a few days at heavily discounted prices in a beautiful hotel overlooking Naiharn Beach, where I walked most mornings. Were these the “quality visitors” the Bangkok Post was referring to?

The reality was stark

Many hotels closed down as early as April/May 2020, but it was now a year already. So, how long, I wondered, would luxury hotel operators with hefty overheads be able to survive or be prepared to survive if they incurred significant losses in revenue. And what could the property owners do without operators?

And what about the smaller owner operators? I was staying in a 40 room apart-hotel near Chalong where I stayed between February and June each year. The owner and his wife lived in one of the rooms. When I arrived late on 7th March 2021 there were two guests and I was one of them.

I didn’t want to think about the consequences.

Here’s my take on Thailand reopening

There were many questions, but no answers.

My guess was that most of the people who earned a living working in Kata, Karon and Patong came from other parts of Thailand and had either returned home or had found work elsewhere.

If that was so, were they building new lives elsewhere and if so, why would they risk it and return to Phuket. I wasn’t optimistic but I reckoned it was possible some might.

Assuming few returned, to get Phuket tourism up and running there would have to be a huge influx of new workers to meet the demands of new employers. Which raised another question. Where would the new employers come from?

Bangkok Post claimed there was a plan for Thailand reopening in Phuket in July. A project of such magnitude would surely require an international management consultant’s input, like Arup, McKinsey or Deloitte. And I wondered;

  • Who were the appointed consultants?
  • What was the plan in detail?
  • How would it be implemented?
  • When would it be unveiled for the public to see?
  • What would there be to attract the tourists if they came?
  • Was the government going to make the massive investment that would surely be required?
  • Or would it come from private sources?

These were just a few of the questions that raced through my mind.

How were they going to do it?

I hoped the government plan would be a success, but I couldn’t see how they were going to pull it off. And as no plan appeared to have been published I was as much in the dark as everyone else.

  • I kept thinking about the unpublished plan for the Phuket reopening that was being toted about.
  • How could it be implemented by July or indeed anytime in the foreseeable future?
  • How would one of the best hotels knock a hole in the 85% empty rate?
  • What was a “quality visitor”?
  • What was there in the three major tourist destinations on Phuket that could be assembled in the time frame to attract anyone to the island?
  • Where were all the missing business people, were they still around and did they have the wherewithal to start up again from scratch?

Final Thoughts

The Phuket tourism industry wasn’t built overnight. It took the best part of forty years. But it was destroyed in a few months. So don’t expect a Phuket reopening or a Thailand reopening anytime soon, unless you are just referring to the lifting of travel restrictions.

When will Thailand reopen to tourists? Because tourists won’t commit to Thailand for their holidays without clarity that the entertainment is available. Will businesses open without the guarantee that tourists will arrive? It’s the proverbial chicken and egg.

Seeing what I saw on our depressing trip, I find it difficult to imagine a new phoenix rising, the rebirth of tourism.

We can live in hope, but foolery does not become wisdom.

If you are interested in Thailand, you may like my 6 book Psychological Thriller Series, Alfie Goes to Thailand where you will find specific reference to Phuket in Chapter 6 of Book 6.

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