Sputnik jabs jog Phuket confidence

PHUKET, 23 August 2021: Tourism stakeholders in Phuket believe the health ministry’s emergency approval of the Russian Sputnik vaccine could boost travel to the Thai island in the fourth quarter of the year.

Are they dreaming? So far, the year has been a nightmare for Thailand, with Covid-19 cases passing the 1 million mark in mid-August with a daily death toll exceeding 200.

Visitor arrivals from January to June 2021 from all countries reached 40,447, down 99.72% on 6,691,574 logged during the same period of 2020.

Russian arrival during the first half of this year reached 1,655 compared with 586,900 in the first half of 2020. It puts the bullish statements over Sputnik vac tourism into perspective.

(left) Phuket Tourist Association President, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam; (right) Laguna Phuket Managing Director, Ravi Chandran.

During 2019, a pre-Covid-19 year, Phuket welcomed more than 700,000 Russian during the short five-month period peak season, all arriving on direct flights from the Russian Federation. The total for the entire year stood at 1.4 million Russians. At best, the Phuket Sandbox will attract a few thousand, but nothing like the estimates dished out by travel experts.

It doesn’t help that Phuket has now introduced a total ban on alcohol sales that also extends to hotels. Even min-bars in the rooms are now stocked with just soft drinks and water.

The traditional snowbird season gets underway in November and extends March, but it is unlikely that Russian snowbirds will be clamouring for a seat on charters this year. But there is plenty of optimism on the island that improvements are on the way.

Optimism will need to contend with the rising cost of a charter holiday to Phuket under the “sandbox” conditions. They will be considerably more expensive, making European beach holiday options closer to Russia cheaper than a Phuket package. In addition, the trend in Europe this year is to holiday closer to home to be on the safe side. But despite the negatives, there is enough support to give the Russian market a try to boost arrivals under Phuket Sandbox rules.

“This is great news for Phuket. It’s time to go beyond the Sandbox and build a foundation for a broader tourism initiative,” said Phuket Tourist Association president BhummikittiRuktaengam. “The industry can now focus on the northern European winter season. This is a big opportunity for Phuket. These are our legacy markets.”

Laguna Phuket’s managing director, Ravi Chandran agrees it’s a major step forward if Russian charter airlines can persuade travel consumers that the energy required to navigate the complicated Phuket Sandbox hoops and hurdles are worth the effort.

“The acceptance of the Sputnik vaccine is a game-changer for Phuket,” he said. “The outbound Russian market is the biggest one in the world outside of China, and the timing is perfect with the high season starting in November this year.”

Since 1 July, over 300,000 hotel room nights have been booked up until the end of August by international visitors arriving under the banner of the Phuket Sandbox.

Talking about ‘ready-made’ market potential, C9 Hotelworks managing director Bill Barnett said: “Coming into the 2021 winter wonderland and changing marketplace, the Russians, who typically have an 11-12-night average length of stay, are a perfect fit for the Sandbox.”

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