TTF returns to a live audience

BANGKOK, 23 March 2021: The annual Thailand Tourism Forum still managed to live up to its billing as the country’s New Year curtain-raiser even if it convened on Monday three months late.

Now in its 10th year, the half-day gathering of tourism and hospitality executives missed its traditional time slot in January due to an outburst of Covid-19 cases in and around Bangkok.

Despite the wait, it still managed to be the first in-person major travel event in Thailand instead of the new normal virtual or hybrid events.

In its own words, Thailand Tourism Forum 2021 returned to take a critical forward look in a year of uncertainty that has triggered a massive downturn in business. C9Hotelworks managing director Bill Barnett opened the event with curtain raiser forecasts and what’s in store for hotel owners and travel operators in an incredibly volatile marketplace.

What’s in store over the next few months became the burning question on everyone’s lips during the post-event cocktails, but the answers tended to veer into the possible and maybe of a conjecture zone.

Not the fault of TTF. In Covid-19 times, nothing is chiselled in stone although there is an overload of suggestions and pointers from the private sector lobbying for an early reopening tied to one requirement. The quarantine rule must end to save travel and hospitality companies from ruin. The crisis is now in its second year, and cash flow is running dry for even cash-heavy hotel operators.

Plans and proposals are flying left, right and centre. On the eve of the TTF, Phuket became the centre of attention as top-level tourism officials met with the Phuket Constitutional Council to rethink the timetable to kickstart tourism to the country’s top island destination.

They want to see the island reopened to international tourists without quarantine as early as 1 July. There’s a catch 22. It calls for at least 70% of the island’s population to be inoculated against Covid-19 by that deadline.

It would probably save the island’s tourism industry which is now tottering on the brink of massive closures. Literally, thousands of hotel staff are redundant, and those who are still working had their salaries cut by at least half.

Phuket’s provincial authorities and tourism leaders say Phuket could be the pilot project to bring back tourists to Thailand safely without quarantine. That happened to be the underlying message of the TTF on Monday; a call to action to lobby for a quick reopening on 1 July. 

However, enthusiasm is tempered with common sense. Covid-29 is still a threat, with 90 new cases reported in and around Bangkok on Sunday. To illustrate the note of caution among health authorities, the government again extended the emergency decree from 1 April to 31 May.

The case for a staggered opening starting with Phuket is an attractive option if the quarantine rule is abolished. However, travellers would be required to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative test result for Covid-19.

Officials are suggesting Phuket could start by opening to travellers from low-risk countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, UAE and Israel. They want to focus on countries that have vaccinated around 70% of the population, and travellers have an internationally recognised travel pass to prove it.

While July would be the preferred launch pad for recovery and the end of the quarantine rule, it is also likely that Phuket’s reopening date could be postponed until 1 October, and limited to just vaccinated travellers. Additional source markets, such as India, Russia, the UK and Australia, could be included.

The travel industry and the government differ on one major issue. The industry argues that as long as there is a quarantine rule, whatever the number of days, most travellers will not bother to book a trip to Thailand. It has to go.

At the Thailand Tourism Forum, tourism experts cut through the cocktail networking chatter to offer advice; “Phuket should follow the Maldives model. Keep it simple for the pilot project but vaccinate the island’s population fast and adopt track and trace island-wide.”

It starts with a fast rollout of the vaccination programme. Phuket has a population of 493,137 residents requiring just short of a million jabs (one plus a booster). As of last Friday, Thailand had inoculated 62,941 people, mainly in 13 provinces, to curb outbreaks.