CHIANG RAI, 16 October 2020: Travel is the stuff of dreams, but since Covid-19 raised its ugly head last December it quickly turned into a nightmare for those who rely on tourism to pay their weekly bills.
We have always been comfortable with the role of dream merchants, and that makes us prone to believing salvation is just around the corner when the facts suggest otherwise.
As long as travellers turned up on our doorstep, the dream was alive and well. Thailand reported 39.8 million tourist arrivals in 2019, and while the travel industry scoffed at the creative arithmetic, the bottom line showed the country was on a roll. Since Covid-19 forced national lockdowns in March, the forecasts indicate Thailand will be lucky to count 6 million visitors this year most of them garnered in the first three months of the year. We are not so comfortable with reality checks, but it is beginning to dawn on even the most successful hospitality companies around Southeast Asia that we are now living a nightmare.
A hotelier in Phuket received this week an email from a tour operator in Finland cancelling all bookings for stays on the island and mainland Khao Lak until January 2021 at the earliest. Of course, he saw it coming, but privately he was hoping for a last-minute reprieve that would enable him to reopen his Phuket resort property 1 November that usually marks the start of the traditional peak season.
Finnish tourists have nowhere safe to go this winter. A few will head for Turkey, but the rest of Europe is bang in the middle of serious second or third waves. Governments in Europe are advising against travel to all countries that have an infection rate of more than 25 per 100,000 population. That immediately cuts out most destinations within a three to five-hour flying distance from Finland and Scandinavia.
Thailand’s incidence rate per 100,000 population is much lower at around 5.7, and in theory, Finns and Scandinavians should be dashing our way to escape the harsh winter realities of northern Europe. They are not because of nightmare restrictions that even make it difficult for Thais stranded overseas to navigate a path home.
“As the Finnish tour operator stated in his email: “Unfortunately there are only a few countries with an incidence rate under 25, and all countries in our Winter 2020-21 production are above it, except for Thailand where they restrict the arrival of Finns to the country. Therefore we are forced to cancel winter production.”
Dream as much as we want, the reality is simple. As long as a 14-day quarantine rule applies to all visitors, leisure travellers are not going to buy a holiday in Thailand. There are just too many hoops to jump through. Instagram graphics that explain the process resemble a game of snakes and ladders.
Not a day passes without experts suggesting new formulas and schemes that will draw tourists back to Thailand’s shores. What we have is a see-saw scenario with health scientists on one end and travel dreamers on the other. They are not balancing. There is no clarity. What the media reports today is irreverent tomorrow. Thailand’s tourism industry deserves better; a more measured approach based on a consensus that involves travel industry input. Yes, government departments check the boxes when they meet trade association representatives, but they should be recruiting the industry to do what it does best; create and manage trip packages that consumers will trust and purchase. What we have now are government agencies pretending to be tour operators. Their efforts lack credibility.
Instead of introducing complicated schemes doomed to failure the wiser approach would be to negotiate with tour operators in Scandinavia to fly charter tours to Phuket and Khao Lak for holiday stays of up to 30 days, November to March. Start small with a flight a week to ensure safety measures work.
The charter groups would need to be tested for Covid-19 prior to boarding flights, on arrival in Phuket and periodically during their stay at no additional cost.
If there has to be a quarantine in place while the Covid-19 tests are processed after arrival in Phuket, it should not exceed three to five days.
The agreement with a charter tour operator should include the free issue of a 30 or 60-day tourist visa and free Covid-19 tests.
Thailand’s public health officials have shown they can efficiently handle groups of visitors arriving in the country. The next step should be to appoint tour operators in specific countries that can efficiently deliver, holidays makers to Phuket and Khao Lak on a manageable scale.
No one in the travel industry is calling for an open house or doors. They are asking for the right to survive in business. If the government insists on closing tourism until 2021, then it should assume responsibility for its actions and compensate the companies forced to hibernate. Hospitality workers will also need a better pay deal to see them through to March next year.
To their credit government officials now admit that a zero-risk status is untenable. Having agreed on that point, turn to the travel industry, listen and recruit it for its obvious expertise. With its knowledge of travel patterns accumulated over many decades, the industry has the contacts and know-how to bring back tourism beginning with charter holidays. That would be a good start on a long journey to recovery.