In Thailand, it’s the all-important tourism sector that has jumped to the head of the coronavirus inoculation line, with the country’s most popular resort island launching a mass vaccination program two months ahead of the rest of the country.
The island of Phuket aims to deliver vaccine doses to at least 460,000 people – most of its population – as it buckles down for July 1, when inoculated overseas visitors will no longer be required to quarantine.
“If we can build immunity for 70-80 percent of the population on the island, we can receive foreign tourists who have been inoculated without the need for quarantine,” Phuket’s Vice Governor Piyapong Choowong told Reuters.
While medical workers, members of the government and the elderly were the first to be vaccinated, Thailand’s decision to prioritize Phuket over other parts of the country highlights the crucial role of tourism to the economy.
Spending by foreign tourists accounted for 11-12 percent of GDP before the pandemic and the sector has been devastated by the coronavirus with 1.45 million jobs lost since last year.
Just 6.7 million foreign tourists visited Thailand in 2020, spending some $11 billion. That compares with around 40 million in 2019, when they spent $61 billion.
The cabinet wants to see at least 100,000 tourists come to Phuket in the 3rd quarter. It also hopes that as inoculations worldwide progress, it will see a spike in demand in the 4th quarter and that nationwide some 6.5 million visitors will have spent 350 billion baht ($11 billion) by the end of the year.
Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Yuthasak Supasorn said “it’s a challenge but that will contribute to GDP to some extent.”
“We don’t expect tourists will come in like a broken dam but we hope to have quality visitors with high spending.”
Visitors from Europe, the United States and the United Arab Emirates are expected to return first, Yuthasak added.
Strict 14-day quarantine requirements for overseas visitors have helped Thailand limit COVID-19 cases to nearly 29,100 infections and 95 deaths but have proven to be too great a hurdle for most tourists.
Programs to attract long-term tourists who test negative for the virus have largely flopped, even with creative measures such as quarantine at golf resorts.
Songklod Wongchai, an analyst at Finansia Syrus, believes Thailand could see a swift rebound in tourism, citing the example of the Maldives which has seen hotel occupancy rates bounce back to 70-80 percent despite cases of the virus.
“Pent-up demand may come back faster than expected. I think the Land of Smiles will start smiling again,” he said.