“We have no idea how many people are coming,” said Anthony Lark, president of Phuket Hotel Association (PHA), when asked of his expectations of visitor numbers after the destination reopens on 1 July under the Phuket Sandbox model.
With about two weeks to go until the much-anticipated opening date, Lark concedes that further clarity is still needed for some details around the Phuket Sandbox model. But despite the changing arrival rules and goalposts, the long-haul visitor markets are already showing a keen interest in returning to Phuket.
It will be a buyer’s market for the first six months. There will be fantastic deals and very few people on the beaches of Phuket.
According to Lark, strong interest has been registered in markets such as Israel, Dubai, Qatar and the Middle East countries, as well as Europe, the UK and Scandinavia. Many potential tourists from these countries have been vaccinated and they are eager to travel internationally.
Ravi Chandran, managing director of Laguna Phuket, also notes an uptick in enquiries from these markets, as well as South Korea. “People are waiting to see what happens in July. We expect the pick-up will happen towards end August.”
Lark agrees, adding: “Given the flights and markets that are open where tourists can return without quarantines, hotels can possibly average 20-25% occupancy from July to October. And from November when further rules relax and Europe enters the winter season until March next year, we would love for the figures to go to 40-50%.”
Under the sandbox programme, tourists are allowed to visit the destination without quarantine requirements as long as Phuket remains the single arrival and departure point. However, they must stay on Phuket for at least 14 days before being permitted to travel beyond the island province.
Meanwhile, the sandbox model could potentially drive business travel to Phuket, noted Lark.
“We have been hearing that people in Hong Kong and other parts of the world with business relationships with Bangkok companies that they are planning to meet in Phuket, with their vaccinated counterparts from Bangkok flying in. It might be a little boost to meetings in Phuket.”
For for the first batch of returning tourists, Anthony Lark, president of Phuket Hotel Association is confident they will be rewarded with an island experience that is more pristine, sustainable and at even more affordable prices than before.
Laguna Phuket, like many other hotels and resorts on the island, have moved to offer flexible cancellation policies, special deals, alongside plenty of add-ons and incentives, Chandran said. More than 300 hotels and tourism establishments were awarded the SHA Plus certification, which recognises that the property has taken steps to prevent Covid-19 spread and more than 70% of its staff are fully vaccinated.
And for tourists who visit the island in the initial months, Lark is positive that they will be rewarded with a Phuket experience that is more pristine, sustainable and at even more affordable prices than before.
“It will be a buyer’s market for the first six months. There will be fantastic deals and very few people on the beaches of Phuket,” he said. “You may spend a bit more on airfares to get here but you will reap great savings in hotels, restaurants and activities once you arrive.”
High stakes for Thailand tourism
For now, getting the sandbox model to launch successfully without major new Covid-19 outbreaks in the coming months will be a paramount task for Thailand’s tourism industry.
“We are on. This is the clear message and it has not changed. The Phuket industry has never shared a vision and intent so passionately," said Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourism Association. "July 1 is happening and we are nearly there."
Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor for international marketing Asia and South Pacific at Tourism Authority of Thailand, reiterated during a recent PHA webinar that Phuket will be held up as a reopening model for the country. “If Phuket fails, other destinations will not happen.”
After all, the Phuket sandbox model wasn’t conceived to reopen to the floodgates of tourism, Chandran noted, but as an example "to open and show credibility" and for the rest of destinations in Thailand to follow.
Lark added: “By end this year, we would be in a position to learn how to do this sandbox. Samui will reopen in October based on Phuket’s trial and errors, likewise for Pattaya and Chiang Mai — and that’s the whole point of the sandbox. We learn to build something in the sandbox and take that and build it somewhere.”