6 June 2024

Locals working for tourism-related businesses on Thailand’s resort island of Phuket, most of them fully vaccinated against COVID-19, have expressed their readiness to welcome foreign tourists once again, after its official reopening on July 1st. The visions are, however, somewhat different among boat-business owners.

“We are ready to welcome both domestic and foreign tourists again, so that Phuket’s tourism will improve, everyone will have income and the economy will be revived,” said one staff member at Andaman Passion, a local catamaran operator in Phuket.

“We hope that foreign tourists will come, under the Phuket ‘sandbox project,” said the captain of the catamaran,but we also have to control the further spread of the virus too.”

Heavily-reliant on foreigners

Catamaran operators are among several tourism-related businesses on Phuket that have been heavily affected by the pandemic, as they rely on tourists, both Thais and foreigners, who often come in large groups on company excursions.

Chaowit Pradubsriphet, Director of Andaman Passion, said that the luxurious catamaran trips used to be fully booked every day. Since the first COVID-19 outbreak, however, his foreign customers started to disappear.

“When the pandemic started in February last year, Chinese tourists started to disappear. So it affected 20% of our business at the time. After a month, all western tourists disappeared, so we had to pause our operations, because there were no customers.”

Despite having no customers at all, some of his staff still have to come in at least three days a week tomaintain the catamaran.

Reflecting on all the outbreaks in Thailand, since last year, Chaowit said the latest wave, beginning in April, is the worst for the catamaran business, compared to the first outbreak. 

“When there was a lockdown on Phuket [last year], we had a specific timeframe to plan for when we could resume our business, with Thai tourists coming in first, so there were still chances,” Chaowit said.

Now, however, we cannot see anything, as the new infections are still increasing and no Thai tourists are coming at all. We’re still seeing whether the Phuket ‘sandbox will bring foreign tourists to us.”

Things change all the time

Similarly, Ruethaiwan Chakrutpong, owner of Local Dive Thailand, which operates speed boats that offer diving classes, revealed that they have been deeply affected, especially during the first outbreak, as they rely heavily on foreign tourists.

“So [we’ve been] financially affected because [we have] fewer customers,” as she explains that she had to cease operations during certain periods, due to a lack of customers.

Before the pandemic, her business could offer dive trips every day, with up to 10 boats running, with Phi Phi Islands being the most popular route, as well as the Racha Yai Island and King Cruiser routes. After the pandemic, the boat excursions have reduced to only three boats for the weekends.

Ruethaiwan explains that 95% of her customers came from Western countries, as well as some from Singapore, Hong Kong and China. She had to change her target group quickly to local tourists instead,because of the pandemic.

“It has been really hard. [I was] also mentally exhausted as a business owner, because we have to adapt [to changes], and we don’t know what’s going to happen. Things change all the time.”

Hopes after reopening

When Phuket reopened to foreign tourists, Ruethaiwan admits that she really had high hopes. 

“Before the third wave, we were thinking that everyone will come [to Phuket], the troubled tourism business would be booming again and people would want to go diving.”

Now, however, she is uncertain, as the country is still battling against the third wave of the pandemic.

“I’m not sure what tourists will think, whether it’s safe enough to come to Thailand. I still have a lot of inquiries about how they’re going to get onto Phuket. They have trouble with the certificates of entry and [some businesses] are still unclear about the SHA Plus registration scheme.”

Chaowit also has hopes that foreign tourists will return, but he also understands that some tourists, especially Thais, are still afraid to travel. He added that most of his customers have booked their trips for October onwards, rather than in July.

“We all know that the chances [of having plenty of customers] are not high but, if we don’t start now, there won’t be any other way out.”

While the Thai government has an ambitious plan to fully reopen the country to foreign travellers in October, the hopes among tourism business owners seem to be a lot lower.

“Personally, I think the chances of fully reopening the country in October is really low, because we don’t know yet whether the Phuket ‘sandbox will be successful,” said Chaowit, pointing out that there could be a new COVID-19 outbreak at any time.

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World