Travel Weekly Asia: What is Thailand's strategy towards reopening international tourism?
Yuthasak: Once the sky opens and the situation returns to a normal state, we hope to welcome international tourists again. However, under the current situation, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) aims to help Thai tourism make a slow but cautious recovery.
Three selling points will be highlighted that focus on both strength and sustainability: (i) Safety based on an efficient and recognised system of public health and management; (ii) Familiarisation, food and culture that are outstanding and unique; and (iii) Beauty, nature and people that must be sustained.
We have been active on several fronts. One strategy is called “The Best”: The New Normal of Thai Tourism – Tourism Driven under the Supervision of Public Health.
[Domestic tourism] is a long way away from filling up the available capacity, but it is something better than nothing. We have to start somewhere.
B-Booking (in advance): Advanced bookings will be required. Detailed travel planning will become a necessity. The exact number of people, date, time, and expenses, etc., all will need to be calculated beforehand within the context of the new realities; such as, social distancing conditions. Health insurance coverage will also become a must.
E-Environmental (enthusiasts): Participate in promoting responsible tourism for society and help manage the quality of the environment, especially problems caused by tourism; such as, waste and pollution, so as to conserve and heal the recovering environment.
S-Safety (comes first): Tourists will pay more attention to safety in order to protect themselves and prevent the spread of the virus to others.
T-Technology (enhanced tourist experiences): Digital technology will include Mobile Track and Trace: a tracking system which verifies and tracks each individual and/or device in real time whereby digital technology becomes a tourism necessity.
TWA: How will Thailand's success in controlling the Covid-19 contagion boost the country’s image and contribute to tourism recovery? And how can Thailand strike a balance between reopening travel safely and getting the tourism industry back up again?
Yuthasak: We are being very realistic in our approach to dealing with this pandemic. The importance of long-term thinking applies not so much to a time frame, but to the need to help the entire industry “Build Back Better.” Although Thai tourism has been a great success until 2019, the rapid pace of growth has created a number of environmental, social and cultural side effects which need to be dealt with.
The good news is that the entire Thai public and private sectors extended valuable cooperation to bring the pandemic under control. We are now working on ways to ride the wave of this cooperation and advance the problem-solving agenda across several fronts.
In addition to the numerous short-term measures TAT has taken such as, promoting domestic tourism, setting up the Safety Health Administration certification scheme, holding webinars to share market information and intelligence, and converting our annual Thailand Travel Mart into a Thailand Virtual Mart, TAT has also signed a MoU with the UN Development Programme to build the UN Sustainable Development Goals into our long-term tourism policy framework. This will help raise awareness of these goals nationwide across both the public and private sectors.
TWA: How likely are travel bubbles going to happen, especially as some countries in Asia seeing second or even third waves of infection?
Yuthasak: We are aware about the second wave of infection in many countries that we plan to implement the travel bubble plan to, which is why the Royal Thai Government is considering postponing the plan for now.
TWA: Are there innovative yet safe ways that Thailand can get travel going again?
Yuthasak: Regarding the innovation, we are focussing on building tourists’ confidence. TAT has initiated the Amazing Thailand Safety and Health Administration (SHA) project. The aim is to make tourism a part of Thailand’s disease prevention measures and ensure that both Thai and foreign tourists have a positive experience, and that they are happy and confident in the sanitation and safety standards of Thailand’s tourism products and services. This can be achieved by combining public health safety measures and establishments’ high-quality service standards to reduce the risk and prevent the spread of Covid-19, as well as improve Thailand’s tourism products and service standards.
TAT awards SHA certificates, assigns a serial number to successful entrepreneurs, and records it in the database of the list of entrepreneurs who have received the SHA certificate. TAT can also revoke the SHA certificate if entrepreneurs fail to comply with the SHA standards.
SHA provides sanitation and safety standards for tourists. During the re-opening period of establishments or services, tourists and service recipients are asked to provide any suggestions (Post Audit) via the online system provided by TAT, which will be used for further improvement. Establishments will be randomly inspected by the committee.
TWA: Which segments or markets will TAT focus on first post Covid, and why?
Yuthasak: Domestic tourism offers the best immediate potential, especially for short-trip destinations around Bangkok and other major cities, which can be easily reached by private car.
Areas proving popular are the provinces around Bangkok, Hua Hin, Pattaya, and Phetchaburi. By air, Chiang Mai is another potential destination.
The target market segments include:
1. FIT (Free and Independent Travellers): or smaller group travel.
2. Short-haul travel: Travel within the country.
3. Health Tourism: Ensuring good health and making tourism a part of a healthy and happy lifestyle.
4. Traditionalists: Like to travel with emphasis on safety and zero-risk.
5. Budget Travellers: Seek a low-cost vacation or tourist trip. Some may be due to economic conditions as well.
For overseas travellers, we may initially allow a group of businesspeople who need to travel to work in Thailand. However, they must have documents certified by the head office or the invited organisation. Patients who need to travel to Thailand for ongoing medical treatment will also be allowed in with strict control and monitoring measures.
TAT has carried out a project to raise the standard of cleanliness and sanitation according to the concept "Repair-Build" so that establishments in the tourism industry have prepared and adjusted to provide services in accordance with the New Normal and to build trust for tourists under the Amazing Thailand SHA project.
TWA: As Thailand slowly reopens to travel, medical tourists will be among the first segments to be allowed entry. Who are these medical tourists that TAT is targeting?
Yuthasak: Medical tourism, including all forms of health and wellness, was one of the most important market segments for Thailand in the pre-Covid-19 days. Thailand was always very popular, both due to the quality of the care as well as the entire recuperation and rehabilitation process. We believe that our success in medically curbing the spread of the pandemic in Thailand, as indicated by the high recovery rates and low death rates, has enhanced the confidence in our medical facilities and will serve us well in future.
Many existing patients who have to follow-up on treatment will certainly want to continue their treatment. Also Thai doctors have developed a good reputation for specialist treatments; such as, cosmetic surgery, orthopaedics, IVF, sex reassignment surgery, etc. The numbers will not be large, but it will certainly be one source of business.
It is certainly a sensitive area, too. The treatments will have to be low-risk. All potential patients will have to undergo stringent checks in their own countries, and they may even face quarantine regulations upon arrival. It will have to be on a case-by-case basis. We are working closely with the medical sector to find ways of supporting them in bringing the regular clients back.
TWA: Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakan had expressed a keenness to reset Thailand’s tourism sector. What should be rebooted, and what should be kept?
Yuthasak: The Minister’s policy is to emphasise higher safety standards (safe); enhancing attractions (clean); promoting reasonable pricing for products and services (fair), and promoting environmental consciousness and community-based tourism (sustainability). But now, he will add "new normal" into his policy as well.
The “reboot” applies to enhancing the management of various tourism destinations, upgrading cleanliness and hygiene, and limiting the number of tourists to maintain the natural balance. What will remain unchanged is the traditional Thai hospitality, friendliness, and good service. Of course, the value-for-money factor will also grow exponentially with discounts and deals rolled out.
TWA: And is it possible or sustainable to focus on the high-end path forward for Thailand when the country has a massive tourism infrastructure built up and many millions employed in the sector?
Yuthasak: High-end visitors are desirable, of course, but they are certainly not an exclusive target segment. The downturn has impacted thousands of mom-and-pop products, facilities and services catering to the more numeric middle-class customers. They provide the volume base, which is absolutely vital for the survival of the entire industry. Certainly, our high-end products will continue to be popular, at even better value for money.
TWA: What has TAT seen or learned since the country has reopened domestic tourism? Is that enough to keep the tourism industry afloat?
Yuthasak: The reopening of domestic tourism has confirmed our awareness that while international travelling is still restricted, domestic tourism will be a significant tool to the tourism industry. Also, the preventive hygienic and health-control measures will be a great help to boost up travellers’ confidence.
We are taking a number of actions to promote domestic tourism such as, the Safety and Health Administration Certification scheme, promotions for specific destinations; such as, Samui, the O2O shopping promotion, etc. Of course, the hotels, airlines, and individual destinations themselves are offering a vast choice of discounts and deals. These will go a long way towards stimulating domestic traffic, and eventually pave the way for international traffic when that opens up.
The Royal Thai Government has also given tax breaks to encourage domestic tourism. MICE events are also being organised by government agencies in different parts of the country. TAT is also using its social and regular media channels, especially radio and TV, to get the message out.
There are still many Thais with good purchasing power, who saved a lot of money because of the lockdowns and are now anxious to get out and spend it, not just for their own personal recreation but also as support for their fellow Thai people. Enhanced use of technology and social media networks is facilitating the recovery.
It is a long way away from filling up the available capacity, but it is something better than nothing. We have to start somewhere. The good thing is that there is wholehearted public support. People are continuing to take health precautions and observing the regulations. But from what we can see, life is returning to normal all over the country. The impact has certainly been severe but we have been through many crises in the past, and people have always found a way to adjust.