Paranoia, xenophobia meet plan to reopen Phuket to tourists

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd / Flickr
Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd / Flickr

The xenophobia is running high on Phuket after the tourism authority said it would use the island to pilot the return of foreign tourists for the first time since March.

Many on the island and elsewhere slammed plans to partially reopen for the upcoming high season to stem deeper economic losses as opening the door to a second wave of COVID-19 infections along with the foreign tourists.

Despite arrivals being restricted to areas near their hotel for two weeks and other limitations, people complained the plan to open Phuket was too relaxed.

“I disagree, this is a matter of life and death and 14 days [of semi-quarantine] are too short. Plus, how can we know there will be no virus?” Facebooker Khemika May wrote. “If we open our border to foreigners, don’t you think the infected numbers will shoot up, like at the beginning of this year?”

She suggested more be done to encourage domestic tourism, such as lowering prices “so Thai people can travel there.”

Thailand hasn’t recorded a case of domestic transmission for three months, and paranoia about possible cases has led to panicked reactions in Rayong and Bangkok.

Tourism Authority of Thailand Gov. Yuthasak Supasorn acknowledged Saturday that the plan, which would begin in October on Phuket before being extended to other provinces, was not without risk. 

“There is a risk in the new tourism model, but if we don’t open there is a bigger risk for the economy,” Yuthasak said, mentioning that travel agencies in Europe have been asking when tour packages to Thailand can be sold again.

Bunjerd Bunjerd wrote a new outbreak could lead to a vicious cycle for the military-backed government.

“Soon they will have to close the whole city, then the whole country, and then allocate more money, adding more public debt for Thai people to pay,” he wrote. “Then they will extend the emergency decree and keep their power intact like this.”

There were some voices making the case for economic survival over absolute pandemic survival.

“Look at the reality now! Thai people won’t die of COVID but of not having a job. If you still live in fear like this, how about closing the country for 100 years? Please watch some economic news! At least those people help pay our taxes.” Tiyacha Tama wrote, noting that foreign tourists can help ease the public debts the government has incurred.

“Phuket survives because of tourists, and now it’s so quiet and so many shops are closed. If the island people can accept the conditions, it’s OK.” Chutima Aree wrote. “But [foreign tourists] should stay within the island only or close the island and make it accessible via plane only.”

A raft of rules and restrictions were announced along with the plan.

Foreign nationals would need to register with the Foreign Ministry as the early trial period would likely be limited to charter flights. They would have to spend 14 days upon arrival at approved hotels, from which they could only travel 1 kilometer. They would be tested for the virus before entry, upon arrival, after 14 days passed and before departing the city.

The governor said they are eyeing visitors from nations under six hours away by air that allow their citizens to travel freely. He said more borders could be opened depending on demand.

As for the little-used domestic travel subsidy, Yuthasak said unused funds would be used to extend it past its planned expiration in October. So far only about 800,000 of five million hotel stays have been claimed, and just about 3,400 out of two million air ticket rebates.

The program, which covers 40% of hotel stays for Thais 18 and up, has also been upgraded from five nights to up to 10 nights. The subsidy for air travel has been bumped up to THB2,000 from THB1,000 per ticket.  

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